Thursday, April 17, 2014

U.S. Strikes Taliban Stronghold in Pakistan

At least 20 people were killed and 25 others injured Monday after several missiles fired by unmanned U.S. Predator drones hit a religious school and the house of a powerful Taliban commander in northwest Pakistan, near the border of Afghanistan, according to witnesses and a Pakistani security official.

The missile strike occurred about 10:30 a.m. in the small village of Dande Darpa Khel in the tribal area of North Waziristan. Bashirullah, a resident of the village who like many ethnic Pashtuns uses only one name, said two Predator drones fired six missiles at a religious seminary school run by top Taliban commander Jalaluddin Haqqani. The intense, rapid-fire bombing raid also destroyed Haqqani’s nearby home and several other houses, Bashirullah said.

A Pakistani security official in North Waziristan confirmed villagers’ accounts of the attack, saying that the Taliban commander’s supporters immediately cordoned off the area around the bomb site and barred anyone from entering. He said that Haqqani and his son Sirajuddin — a leading Taliban fighter — were not in any of the targeted buildings when the missiles struck.

The Pakistani security official, who requested anonymity because he is not authorized to speak publicly on such incidents, said dozens of the injured were taken by ambulance to hospitals in the tribal area’s main town of Miranshah. Haqqani’s younger son, Badruddin, told the Reuters news service that his father and brother were unharmed because they were away in Afghanistan at the time of the strike.

Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, chief spokesman for the Pakistani military, also confirmed that the attack had occurred. But he said he could not verify whether U.S. drones had fired the missiles or disclose any further details until the military’s investigation is complete.

The missile launch in North Waziristan comes amid a wave of stepped-up attacks by U.S. forces in Pakistan’s border areas near Afghanistan. The strike Monday marked the fifth cross-border incursion by U.S. forces in about a week. On Wednesday, at least 20 people were killed in the Pakistani tribal area of South Waziristan after U.S. helicopters flew nearly 20 miles across the border from Afghanistan and ground troops launched an assault on the small tribal village of Musa Nika. Pakistani sources said the helicopters contained both U.S. and Afghan forces but differed on whether those who attacked on the ground included Americans.

Witnesses said several women and children were killed in that raid, in which the forces opened fire on three mud-brick houses. The attack on Musa Nika — the first known ground assault on a Taliban target inside Pakistan since 2001 — drew a sharp public rebuke from the Pakistani government and further fueled growing anti-American sentiment inside Pakistan.

Although Monday’s missile strike apparently failed to strike its intended targets, witnesses said the bombing killed several relatives of Haqqani, a veteran Taliban fighter who is believed to have close links to Pakistan’s powerful Inter-Services Intelligence agency. U.S. officials have named the Haqqani network as one of the top threats to coalition troops operating Afghanistan, saying Sirajuddin has used the religious seminary as a safe house and training grounds for Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters who have been mounting cross-border attacks on U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan.

Haqqani founded the two-story seminary known as Madrassa Mumba-I-Uloom during the 1980s, in the wake of the Soviet incursion in Afghanistan. Haqqani, who received millions in funding from the U.S. and Saudi Arabia and support from the CIA during the conflict with the Soviets, personally taught hundreds of classes there, educating thousands of religious students who later joined the waves of Islamist fighters that went on to defeat the Soviets.

He remained an influential figure in Pakistan’s restive and remote tribal areas for years after the end of Soviet rule in Afghanistan in 1989.

When the United States launched its military campaign in Afghanistan after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Haqqani pledged his allegiance to the Afghan Taliban and soon became one of the most powerful commanders under Taliban leader Mullah Omar. Pakistani security forces have raided Haqqani’s madrassa several times in recent years, but locals and security officials say the religious seminary is no longer used as a training ground.

The Haqqani network’s major operational hub is in the eastern Afghan province of Khost, but the network was originally based out of Dande Darpa Khel, where the missiles struck Monday.

Haqqani has for years held control of several areas in eastern Afghanistan. But recent health problems have forced him to take a less active role, leaving Sirajuddin to manage the family’s sprawling insurgent network. U.S. and Afghan intelligence officials have blamed Sirajuddin for the deadly suicide bomb attack on the Indian Embassy in Kabul that killed more than 50 people and injured more than 100. That attack prompted U.S. officials to step up pressure last month on the Pakistani government to rein in rogue agents within its intelligence agencies and to eliminate the threat from Taliban and al-Qaeda safe havens in the volatile areas near the country’s 1,500-mile-long Pakistan-Afghanistan border.

Late last month, Pakistani officials banned the Pakistani Taliban from operating inside the country and vowed to make aggressive assaults on an array of Islamist insurgent commanders who now control wide swaths of northwest Pakistan. The ban followed a three-week assault led by Pakistani security forces on the tribal area of Bajaur, which army officials said killed hundreds of insurgent fighters.