A US military drone struck a militant hideout in Pakistan's North West Frontier Province yesterday, the first such strike outside of the country's tribal belt, but the 20th missile attack overall by US forces since August.
The strike underscored that, as the Taliban has spread deeper into Pakistan, the US is willing to engage them further inside Pakistani territory. Rather than clarifying a strategy for Pakistan and Washington to jointly follow, the strikes have only led to greater confusion between the two sides.
Yesterday's strike, which left five dead, took place in Bannu, an area abutting Pakistan's tribal belt, but still inside the country's North West Frontier Province. The target was some 19 miles from the Afghan border, Agence France-Presse (AFP) reported, adding:
The attack marked the first US missile strike outside of the rugged tribal regions, which have become safe havens for militants linked to Taliban and Al-Qaeda, one Pakistani security official said.
In recent weeks, the Pakistani Taliban has expanded the range of its attacks to include several areas deeper inside Pakistan, including Peshawar, the capital of the North West Frontier Province, as England's Guardian newspaper reports:
Fighting in the surrounding countryside has spilled into urban areas. Last week, a suicide bomb in the [Peshawar's] stadium killed four people, an Iranian diplomat was kidnapped, two journalists were wounded in an ambush and gunmen murdered an American aid worker.
Among the dead in yesterday's missile attack were said to be foreign fighters, AFP reports.
"At least two foreigners were among five killed," [a senior security official told AFP.]
Pakistani officials use the term "foreigners" to describe Al-Qaeda militants.
That a wide range of foreign fighters continues to fight alongside the Pakistani Taliban was also confirmed this week by three Pakistani tribal elders, according to the Daily Times, a leading English newspaper in Pakistan.
Three tribal elders on Tuesday escaped from Taliban captivity in Bajaur Agency, claiming the presence of a large number of foreigners in the Taliban ranks. Malak Bakht Munir and two other tribal elders told reporters that the foreigners included Chechens, as well as Uzbek, Tajik, Sudanese, and Afghan nationals.
The presence of such foreign fighters has been used as a justification for the US military's controversial attacks on Pakistani soil, of which there have been several in the last few weeks alone.
On Friday, "at least 11 people were killed... including six foreign fighters, in a suspected U.S. missile strike on Pakistan's troubled border region of North Waziristan," according to The Washington Post.
The New York Times described a strike Sunday as a "barrage" attack:
American troops in Afghanistan fired an artillery barrage at insurgents in Pakistan's volatile tribal region in a strike coordinated with Pakistan's military, United States and NATO officials said Tuesday. The strike, less than a mile inside Pakistan, came Sunday after the militants fired rockets at an American position in Afghanistan.
Although such strikes have become more common, they have also been clouded by conflicting reports as to the nature of Pakistan's willingness to allow them.
This week, NATO and US military officials reported that Pakistani armed forces have been cooperating with US and NATO troops in Pakistan, citing Sunday's attack as an example, reports the Associated Press.
In the past month, NATO and Pakistan also have cooperated in so-called Operation Lion Heart — a series of complementary operations involving Pakistani army and paramilitary troops, and NATO forces on the Afghan side, said Col. John Spiszer, US commander in northeast Afghanistan.
But then Pakistan's military quickly denied any joint operation, according to Online International News Network, a Pakistani wire service.
[S]pokesman of Pakistan Forces, Major G. Athar Abbas has strongly refuted the statement and said that no joint operation was being carried out, and both the forces were conducting operations in their respective areas. "Pakistan forces are only allowed to take operation in Pakistani areas while US and Afghan forces conduct their own operations in the Afghan areas," he added.
But on Sunday, The Washington Post reported:
The United States and Pakistan reached tacit agreement in September on a don't-ask-don't-tell policy that allows unmanned Predator aircraft to attack suspected terrorist targets in rugged western Pakistan, according to senior officials in both countries.
"It is doing exactly the opposite of what you are trying to do. We are trying to separate the good guys from the bad guys, trying to separate the tribes from the militants. We made it abundantly clear that this [attack] was pushing them together and creating sympathy for the militants. Soon after that I went to Washington and repeated my message personally to the White House."