Even as the Obama administration’s assessment of its war strategy nodded to the primacy of the CIA’s drone campaign, Predators underscored the point. Over the past two days, four Predators or Reapers fired their missiles at suspected militants in North Waziristan, with three of the strikes coming early today.
They represent a geographic expansion of the drone war. Today’s strikes come in Khyber, an area abutting Afghanistan’s Nangahar province, that’s been notably drone-free. It has become an area for militants fleeing military action in South Waziristan to take succor.
They also bring the drone-strike tally for this year up to 113, more than twice last year’s 53 strikes. But those figures don’t begin to tell the whole story.
According to a tally kept by the Long War Journal, 58 of those strikes have come since September: There has been a drone attack every 1.8 days since Labor Day. LWJ’s Bill Roggio says the pace of attacks between September and November (there was a brief December respite, now erased) is “unprecedented since the U.S. began the air campaign in Pakistan in 2004.” (By contrast, in 2008, there were just 34 strikes.)
Both Roggio and the New America Foundation have found that the overwhelming majority of this year’s strikes have clustered in North Waziristan: at least 99, by Roggio’s count.
That torrid pace of attacks should make it beyond debate that the drones are the long pole in the U.S.’s counterterrorism tent, even if the drone program is technically a secret. The Pakistanis haven’t sent their Army into North Waziristan to harass al-Qaeda’s haven in the mountainous, Connecticut-sized region, waving off U.S. pressure to invade.
Without a ground force to rely on, the CIA argues, the only option for fulfilling the administration’s goal of crushing al-Qaeda is a missile strapped to a surveillance aircraft. During the presidential campaign, Obama said he would pursue al-Qaeda in Pakistan unilaterally if he deemed the Pakistanis intransigent. No one expected he meant he’d do so from the skies.
Of course, the Pakistanis have been the silent partner in the strikes, allowing the drones to fly from their territory, so it’s not as if these are unilateral attacks.