A U.S. missile strike in Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) on Nov. 19 killed five al Qaeda members, including Abdullah Azzam al-Saudi, thought to have been a high-ranking member of the group. Until now, all reported missile strikes by U.S. unmanned aerial vehicles in Pakistan had been in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. Hitting targets in NWFP will test the boundaries on how far the United States will go in its war against al Qaeda and the Taliban.
In the early hours of Nov. 19, two missiles suspected to have been launched from a U.S. unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) hit a house in the Pakistani village of Hindi Khel, about 8 miles west of Bannu city in Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province (NWFP). In the house was Abdullah Azzam al-Saudi, a high-ranking al Qaeda leader who, according to U.S. security officials, was closely linked to deputy al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri and acted as a liaison to the Taliban. Al-Saudi was killed in the strike, along with four or five other foreign militants. Seven civilians in the vicinity were injured. UAV-launched missile strikes have become quite common in Pakistan along the Afghan border. Strikes in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), especially in North and South Waziristan, have been occurring once or twice a week since September and have become so routine that STRATFOR no longer issues situation reports when they occur. That this strike hit some 3 miles over the FATA and NWFP border border in NWFP — an area that had been immune from U.S. strikes — suggests the United States is pushing the envelope in its hunt for al Qaeda prime and in its effort to undermine the Taliban’s war-making capabilities in Afghanistan. Pakistani opposition to U.S. attacks in the FATA has been vocal, with politicians in Islamabad demanding an end to airstrikes on their territory. But there has been no serious retaliation by the Pakistanis and the strikes continue. There has also been a certain logic to the FATA focus. The United States contends that the tribal areas actually are not part of sovereign Pakistan since they are partially autonomous and ruled by local governments; moreover, by cutting deals with militants, Islamabad has relinquished its writ over the area. Furthermore, al Qaeda and the Taliban use the FATA as a launchpad for attacks on U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, giving the United States all the more reason to carry out strikes there. There are even reports of an understanding between Washington and Islamabad in which the latter has agreed to U.S. strikes in Pakistan’s tribal badlands. But the NWFP is another story. It is a full-fledged province of Pakistan where the governing party (the Awami National Party, or ANP) has cooperated in opposing Islamist militants. However, the NWFP (not the FATA) is where the primary leaders of al Qaeda are most likely hiding. Hard by the border, the FATA is too close to Afghanistan and al Qaeda’s U.S. and NATO enemies for it to be such a sanctuary, while the NWFP is farther away and somewhat buffered by the FATA. The death of al-Saudi, who was an important link between al Qaeda and the Taliban, further suggests that the apex leadership of al Qaeda is likely hiding in NWFP. The U.S. strategy may be to slowly creep closer and closer to al Qaeda and Taliban sanctuaries until UAV airstrikes in NWFP’s target-rich environment seem just as routine as those in the FATA. Meanwhile, the United States will have a good chance to weigh the range of responses from its allies on this latest escalation during a meeting of NATO defense chiefs that began Nov. 19 in Brussels. Pakistani Gen. Ashfaq Kayani will be in attendance. We are also likely to see additional attacks in NWFP districts located along the north-south expanse of the FATA. These districts have seen considerable Taliban activity over the past year or so while Islamabad’s writ in the area has diminished. Indeed, this “Talibanization” has spread further east into settled areas such as Peshawar, the NWFP capital. A more aggressive U.S. campaign in these areas will incite increasing public outrage and make Islamabad’s job of maintaining stability that much more difficult. Ultimately, the United States is much more capable of going after Islamist militants in Pakistan’s border region than the Pakistani army is — a fact not lost on Islamabad. The United States is currently in political flux as President George W. Bush closes out his administration and President-elect Barack Obama readies his. Unable to craft and implement a comprehensive strategy to play out the end game against al Qaeda and the Taliban, the Bush administration has used an interim strategy of increased UAV strikes while a conclusive strategy awaits an Obama administration.