On New Year's Day, an American Predator drone aircraft fired three missiles into a village in Pakistan's lawless South Waziristan tribal region. One hit a vehicle carrying 3 to 5 men (accounts vary). The other two destroyed a building.
This past week we learned who the HVT (high value target) was --- the head of al-Qaeda in Pakistan, the man who was training terrorists for attacks in the U.S. and Europe.
His name, not that you would recognize it, was Usama al-Kini. His deputy, Sheikh Ahmed Salim Swedan, died with him when the Hellfire turned their vehicle into a ball of fire. Both men were Kenyan-born.
Two other nobodies were also killed in the airstrike.
Al-Kini was a senior al Qaeda commander who had a $5 million bounty on his head for planning the 1998 bombings of the US embassies in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania and Nairobi, Kenya which killed 224 civilians and wounded more than 5,000 others. He became al-Qaeda's chief of operations in Pakistan in 2007.
He is suspected as being responsible for suicide attacks inside Pakistan, including the assassination attempt on Benazir Bhutto on her return to Pakistan in October 2007, and the September 2008 bombing at the Marriott hotel in Islamabad. More than 50 people died in the Marriott attack and 270 were wounded.
The Jan. 1 drone attack was followed the next day by another that killed 4 Uzbeks in yet another village in South Waziristan. In the past 18 months, Predators have killed about a dozen top members of al-Qaeda. It's driving the terrorist organization crazy because it demonstrates how well the U.S. intelligence network is working.
The Predator drones have killed two men who were each, at one time or another, been ranked as al-Qaeda's number three in command. Among others blown to bits by the silent UAV's were al-Qaeda's chief of military operations, and several of the their most experienced experts in explosives and biological weapons. In October, an al-Qaeda commander who was in charge of the funnelling suicide bombers from Syria into Iraq was killed in a US commando helicopter raid across the border from Iraq.
The London Times implies that the Americans are getting some high-level help in their assassination campaign:
"Although the airstrikes have caused protests in Pakistan, intelligence exchanges between Islamabad and the CIA appear to have greatly improved since the sacking in September of Lieutenant-General Nadeem Taj, the head of the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency.
"He was replaced by Lieutenant-General Ahmed Shujaa Pasha, who was in charge of military operations and had launched offensives against militants in the tribal regions. General Pasha is close to General Ashfaq Kayani, Pakistan's army chief, who has taken a stronger hold over the ISI, which in the past enjoyed significant autonomy."
(Predator attack kills al-Qaeda leaders, January 10, 2009, Zahid Hussain in Islamabad and Michael Evans, Defence Editor)
The effect of the rain of death has been devastating.
The Times reported:
"The top hierarchy of al-Qaeda has taken such a hit from US missile strikes that Osama bin Laden and his deputy have had to replace people in the terrorist organisation with men they have never met, according to Western intelligence sources. "
"A dozen of al-Qaeda's "senior management" have been killed by Predator drone attacks, which have been so effective in locating their targets that the militant group has been forced to move from traditional outdoor training camps to classroom-style facilities that are hidden from view..."
"The killings have had a huge impact on the structure, organisation and effectiveness of al-Qaeda, limiting the capacity for commanders to liaise with each other, further separating the top command from the lower ranks and introducing a high degree of uncertainty and a constant awareness of the likelihood of death lurking in the skies."
(Death from above: how Predator is taking its toll on al-Qaeda, Unmanned and heavily armed drones are killing off the 'senior management', Michael Evans, January 3, 2009)
Notice the mention of classroom style facilities. The building destroyed by drone missiles on Jan. 2 was a former girls school that had been taken over by followers of Baitullah Mehsud, the leader of Pakistan's umbrella Taliban organization.
Schools Out? Schools In.
On a not exactly related note, Afghanistan's Ministry of Education said late last year that the Taliban had killed 141 teachers and students in 2008. They added that Taliban attacks closed at least 651 schools.
Most of the closures were in the four southern provinces of Helmand, Kandahar, Zabul and Uruzgan. In these four provinces up to 80 percent of schools are closed.
In the worst-affected Helmand Province, only 54 schools, primarily for boys, are functioning. In 2002, the province had 223 schools operating. Afghanistan's education authorities estimate that more than 300,000 students are being deprived of education.
Sounds awful, doesn't it?
What's always missing from these stories is context.
Since the overthrow of the Taliban in 2000, an additional five million students in Afghanistan are getting an education, according to IRIN, the news agency of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
More than 6 million students are currently enrolled in 11,000 schools across the country.
And at least 3,500 schools have been built since 2002, with hundreds more planned.
The Taliban know they have lost the Education War. Despite a terror campaign that's included the mutilation of teachers, the murder of students and the destruction of tens of thousands of textbooks the Taliban is forced to issue denials they are responsible.
"Our Mujahideen have not attacked schools and schoolchildren," a Taliban spokesman told IRIN via telephone from an unidentified location. "Criminals - whom the government cannot stop - are carrying out such attacks," he said.
But IRIN has the night letters delivered by the Taliban threatening teachers and students with death and villagers know Taliban fighters are behind the attacks on the trucks carrying school books to Kandahar province. The denials fool no one, but they're necessary in the face of almost universal desire by parents for their children to get an education.
An intriguing new development
And what's this? A definite theme is developing as we scan the news of the Fighting War in Afghanistan. It may well be what defines the conflict in 2009.
In the most unexpected places, we're detecting signs that '09 will be the year when the Drug War and the Fighting War become one and the same.
British sources are already anticipating that the arrival of 30,000 American troops throughout the year will mean resources to finally tackle the opium producers head on. The effect will undoubtedly be more fighting which, in turn, will be interpreted by the mainstream media as defeat of NATO's mission.
The Telegraph, January 5, 2009
Britain should be prepared for a 15-year struggle in Afghanistan
After Britain's toughest year in Afghanistan, our defence correspondent argues that the public needs to be convinced that the campaign in Helmand is worth fighting
By Thomas Harding
05 Jan 2009
…With American reinforcements arriving in Helmand, however, the stage is set for us to take on the drug barons at last. That, of course, will stir up an even more vigorous reaction. But if our road-building operations go as planned, farmers' fruit will not rot on the way to market as it does now, making it a more viable crop than non-perishable opium. Similarly, the illegal checkpoints that fleece drivers will go, and Afghan security forces will be able to manoeuvre between towns more easily, despite the risk of roadside bombs.
The Independent, January 11, 2009
UK forces in Afghanistan in worst ever winter campaign
By Terri Judd
British troops are fighting their deadliest winter campaign to date in Afghanistan as the Prime Minister continues to resist calls to send reinforcements.
(Colonel Christopher Langton, a senior analyst with the International Institute for Strategic Studies) agreed that the spike in violence could be due to factions fighting to protect interests in the face of a determined Helmand Governor Gulab Mangal, who has taken a hard line against corruption and the poppy trade.
Sometimes it just took a little digging to get the true story…
Afghan militants cross into Pakistan in bold attack
Officials say hundreds of Taliban insurgents traversed the rugged border and attacked a Pakistani military camp. At least 40 militants and six Pakistani soldiers were killed.
By Laura King LA Times January 11, 2009
REPORTING FROM ISLAMABAD
Meanwhile, NATO supply routes through Pakistan, menaced for months by insurgents, have come under new pressure. Most previous attacks have centered on the historic Khyber Pass near Peshawar, but today insurgents blockaded a road leading to a lesser-used southern crossing into Afghanistan, at Chaman.
Daily Times, Pakistan January 12, 2009
Troops repulse Afghan Taliban attack, 46 killed
Also on Sunday, tribesmen blocked the southwestern supply route for NATO forces in Afghanistan at Chaman with burning tires and felled trees. They were protesting the killing of one of their members in a raid by the Anti-Narcotics Force.
Continual reversals in the insurgency have forced the Taliban to form alliances with drug dealers. They've become dependent on the money and manpower supplied by the drug dealers who, in turn, need the Taliban to stave off the poppy-eradication campaigns of the government. The United Nations estimates that last year, the insurgents made as much as $300 million from the opium trade.
In the past two years the Taliban have suffered some hard blows such as when British troops dismantled their heroin labs and storage facilities in the Musa Qala district of Helmand province. Last November, Afghan Counter Narcotics Police seized more than 38,500 pounds of poppy seeds in a single raid.
Provincial governors and shuras (local councils) have been lobbying farmers not to plant poppy. They've offered government assistance as an incentive for farmers to plante legal crops, although that may have been overshadowed last year by higher prices . The UN says revenue from wheat, for instance, has tripled in one year.
In Nangarhar Province, with help from Japanese aid workers, rice production has increased fivefold, to 60,000 tons compared to 12,000 tons the previous year. Allied and Afghan forces have reduced opium production there by 95%.
The Afghan counternarcotics service said this past week that 7,700 tons of raw opium was produced in Afghanistan last year---500 tons fewer than in 2007. 18 Afghan provinces are now considered opium-free. In 2007, 13 of Afghanistan's 34 provinces had that distinction, and in 2006 only six. The UN estimates one million fewer Afghans were involved in opium cultivation in 2008.
Antonio Maria Costa, the executive director of the United Nations drug office, has said the alleged successes of the drug war are illusory because Afghanistan has had bumper crops of opium for three years running and the Taliban has stockpiles of the stuff and doesn't want to reduce the price by flooding the market. He told the New York Times his information came from "undercover surveyors in Afghanistan who closely observed the autumn planting season and the buzz around markets where opium is traded."