WASHINGTON — A nearly two-month lull in American drone strikes in Pakistan has helped embolden Al Qaeda and several Pakistani militant factions to regroup, increase attacks against Pakistani security forces and threaten intensified strikes against allied forces in Afghanistan, American and Pakistani officials say.
The insurgents are increasingly taking advantage of tensions raised by an American airstrike in November that killed two dozen Pakistani soldiers in two border outposts , plunging relations between the countries to new depths. The Central Intelligence Agency, hoping to avoid making matters worse while Pakistan completes a wide-ranging review of its security relationship with the United States, has not conducted a drone strike since mid-November.Video: US-Pakistan relations strained following airstrike (on this page)
Diplomats and intelligence analysts say the pause in C.I.A. missile strikes — the longest in Pakistan in more than three years — is offering for now greater freedom of movement to an insurgency that had been splintered by in-fighting and battered by American drone attacks in recent months. Several feuding factions said last week that they were patching up their differences, at least temporarily, to improve their image after a series of kidnappings and, by some accounts, to focus on fighting Americans in Afghanistan.
Other militant groups continue attacking Pakistani forces. Just last week, Taliban insurgents killed 15 security soldiers who had been kidnapped in retaliation for the death of a militant commander.
The spike in violence in the tribal areas — up nearly 10 percent in 2011 from the previous year, according to a new independent report — comes amid reports of negotiations between Pakistan’s government and some local Taliban factions, although the military denies that such talks are taking place.
'There is no fear anymore'
A logistics operative with the Haqqani terrorist group, which uses sanctuaries in Pakistan to carry out attacks on allied troops in Afghanistan, said militants could still hear drones flying surveillance missions, day and night. “There are still drones, but there is no fear anymore,” he said in a telephone interview. The logistics operative said fighters now felt safer to roam more freely.
Over all, drone strikes in Pakistan dropped to 64 last year, compared with 117 strikes in 2010, according to The Long War Journal, a Web site that monitors the attacks. Analysts attribute the decrease to a dwindling number of senior Qaeda leaders and a pause in strikes last year after the arrest in January of Raymond Davis, a C.I.A. security contractor who killed two Pakistanis; the Navy Seal raid in May that killed Osama bin Laden; and the American airstrike on Nov. 26.
Pakistan ordered drone operations at its Shamsi air base closed after that airstrike , but C.I.A. drones flying from bases in Afghanistan continue to fly surveillance missions over the tribal areas. The drones would be cleared to fire on a senior militant leader if there was credible intelligence and minimal risk to civilians, American officials said. But for now, the Predator and Reaper drones are holding their fire, the longest pause in Pakistan since July 2008.
“It makes sense that a lull in U.S. operations, coupled with ineffective Pakistani efforts, might lead the terrorists to become complacent and try to regroup,” one American official said. “We know that Al Qaeda’s leaders were constantly taking the U.S. counterterrorism operations into account, spending considerable time planning their movements and protecting their communications to try to stay alive.”Pakistan's alleged 'Washington lackey' fears for life
C. Christine Fair, an assistant professor at Georgetown University who just returned from a month in Pakistan, put it more bluntly: “They’re taking advantage of the respite. It allows them to operate more freely.”
Several administration officials said Saturday that any lull in drone strikes did not signal a weakening of the country’s counterterrorism efforts, suggesting that strikes could resume soon. “Without commenting on specific counterterrorism operations, Al Qaeda is severely weakened, having suffered major losses in recent years,” said George Little, a Defense Department spokesman. “But even a diminished group of terrorists can pose danger, and thus our resolve to defeat them is as strong as ever.”
Analysts say the hiatus coincides with and probably has accelerated a flurry of insurgent activity and new strategies.
In the past week, leaflets distributed in North Waziristan announced that the Afghan Taliban and Al Qaeda had urged several Pakistani militant groups to set aside their differences and some commanders have reportedly asked their fighters to focus on striking American-led allied forces in Afghanistan.
The Pakistani groups include the Pakistani Taliban, an umbrella group led by Hakimullah Mehsud that has mounted attacks against the Pakistani state since the group was formed in 2007. The new council also includes the Haqqani network and factions led by Maulvi Nazir of South Waziristan and Hafiz Gul Bahadur of North Waziristan, which already target NATO soldiers and have tacit peace agreements with the Pakistani military.
In telephone interviews, some Pakistani militants said the purpose of the agreement was to settle internal differences among rival factions and improve the image of the Taliban, which has been tarnished because of the increasing use of kidnapping and the rise in civilian killings.
Other analysts say that the Afghan Taliban are also feeling the pinch of American-led night raids and other operations across the border. They said the Taliban needed the militants in Pakistan’s tribal region to focus more on helping to launch a final offensive in Afghanistan, in hopes of gaining leverage before any peace talks and the ultimate withdrawal of most American forces from Afghanistan by 2014.
One of the main drivers of the accord was Sirajuddin Haqqani, the leader of the Haqqani network, prompting some Pakistani analysts to reason that the Pakistani Army had also prodded the creation of the council, or shura, to maintain its leverage in any peace negotiations. Last summer Adm. Mike Mullen, who was then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called the Haqqanis “a veritable arm” of Pakistan’s main military spy agency.
“No agreement is ever permanent in frontier politics, and it’s all very complicated,” said one American government official with decades of experience in Pakistan and its tribal areas.Story: 'Rising star' of Pakistani politics: Charismatic Khan wows 100,000 at rally
Stuck in a stalemate in the lawless borderlands with this array of militants are 150,000 Pakistani troops. A recent report by an Islamabad-based research organization, the Pak Institute for Peace Studies, said that militant-based violence had declined by 24 percent in the last two years. But it also concluded that terrorist attacks in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, or FATA, and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Province increased 8 percent in 2011 from the year before.
“The security situation remained volatile as militants dislodged from their strongholds constantly managed to relocate to other parts of the FATA,” the report said.
In a sign of the shifting insurgent tactics, the number of suicide bombings in the country declined to 39 through November, compared with a high of 81 in all of 2009, according to the Pakistani military.
The number of attacks from homemade bombs, however, increased to 1,036 through November, compared with 877 for all of 2009. More than 3,500 Pakistani soldiers and police officers have been killed since 2002.
One senior Pakistani Army officer with experience in the tribal areas said that insurgents had devised increasingly diabolical triggers and fuses for bombs.
Unlike Americans, Pakistani soldiers still drive in pickups or carriers with little protection. “The effects are devastating,” said the officer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “Vehicles are basically vaporized.”
“The Pakistani Army is overstretched, and that’s clearly had an impact on morale,” said Maleeha Lodhi, a former Pakistani ambassador to the United States. “But we have to maintain the pressure on the militants.”
Pir Zubair Shah contributed reporting from Cambridge, Mass., and Ismail Khan from Peshawar, Pakistan.
This story, "Lull in Strikes by U.S. Drones Aids Militants," originally appeared in The New York Times.
Copyright © 2013 The New York Times