Information Warfare: Flacking Hellfires


January 8, 2010: The Taliban are running a propaganda campaign in Pakistan, in an attempt to halt the American use of UAVs, firing Hellfire missiles, to kill Taliban and al Qaeda leaders. The Taliban effort is based on pushing civilian casualty statistics that cannot be checked, much less documented, as well as insisting that many more missiles have been fired, that missed their target, and killed civilians instead. The propaganda claims that each missile killed fifteen civilians, and that less than ten percent of the missiles actually hit Taliban or terrorists. While both of these claims are unlikely based on known performance of Hellfires, there is no way to verify the Taliban claims.

Many Pakistanis will believe this stuff, as will many foreigners, simply on ideological grounds. Some Pakistani politicians will demand that the government do something to halt these attacks, which many Pakistanis see as a violation of their sovereignty. But the last thing the Pakistani government wants is a halt to these attacks. That's because the missiles kill many terrorists who have killed, and are planning to kill, Pakistani politicians. It's an open secret that the government even allows the UAVs to operate from Pakistani air bases, and the Pakistanis would like to have their own force of Predator UAVs, armed with Hellfire missiles. At the moment, the Pakistani military uses helicopter gunships and F-16 fighter-bombers to take out similar targets.

Since this "decapitation" (of key terrorists) program began in 2008, over 700 terrorists, including two dozen senior al Qaeda and Taliban leaders, and nearly a hundred mid-level ones, have died from the UAV missile attacks. There have actually been few civilian deaths, as the UAVs stalk their targets, and seek to catch them while travelling, or otherwise away from civilians. Journalists visiting the sites of these attacks later, find few locals claiming lots of civilian casualties.

For all of 2008, there were 36 attacks, causing 317 deaths. The UAV campaign actually began in earnest a year ago. Since then, there have been over sixty attacks. The rate of attacks has been increasing this year. The number of attacks has not increased a lot, but the number of senior terrorist leaders killed has. No wonder that the Taliban leadership is desperate to try anything to stop the Hellfires.

While the terrorist groups are concerned about the losses, especially among the leadership, what alarms them the most is how frequently the American UAVs are finding their key people. The real problem the terrorists have is that someone is ratting them out. Someone, or something, is helping the Americans find the terrorist leaders. It wasn't always that way. In 2007, there were only five UAV attacks, compared to three in 2006, one in 2005 and one in 2004. Back then, it wasn't just the lack of identified targets that kept the UAVs away, but fewer UAVs, and Pakistani resistance to American UAVs making attacks inside Pakistan (even though the targets were terrorists attacking Pakistanis, including senior leaders.) By 2008, the Pakistanis changed their mind.

This Hellfire campaign is hitting al Qaeda at the very top, although only a quarter of the attacks so far have taken out any of the most senior leaders. But that means over half the senior leadership have been killed or badly wounded in the last two years. Perhaps even greater damage has been done to the terrorist middle management. These are old and experienced lieutenants, as well as young up-and-comers. They are the glue that holds al Qaeda and the Taliban together. Their loss is one reason why it's easier to get more information on where leaders are, and why rank-and-file al Qaeda and Taliban are less effective of late.

While al Qaeda believes local Pakistanis are responsible for leaking location information to the Americans, it's a bit more complicated than that. First of all, the U.S. does have a good informant network in the Pakistani tribal territories, especially, during the last few years, in the Taliban heartland of North and South Waziristan. This is a relatively small area (11,500 square kilometers) of mountains and forests along the Afghan border.

Over a decade ago, U.S. intelligence operatives returned to the Afghan border area, and began developing an informant network inside Afghanistan, using tribal connections on the Pakistani side. This was a tedious business, especially in Waziristan. After September 11, 2001, this network was worked with greater urgency. The growing force of Predator (and later the larger Reaper) UAVs were available to run round-the-clock surveillance on what was going on down there. The main obstacle to using all this information was the Pakistani president (Pervez Musharraf), an army general who did not want to anger the tribesmen by letting the Americans launch a lot of Hellfire missiles from their UAVs. Musharraf insisted on personally approving each Hellfire strike, and he did not approve very often. Musharraf lost his job over a year ago. The U.S. and the new civilian Pakistani government agreed that it was now open season on al Qaeda. The new Pakistani government asked the Americans to be as discreet, and accurate, as possible, and then hunkered down for the public outrage over this American "attack on Pakistan." But in fact, the Hellfire attacks were killing men who were responsible for terrorist attacks that had killed thousands of Pakistanis.

The U.S. intelligence network in Pakistan had connections everywhere. Even pro-Taliban tribesmen were willing to earn some money by informing on al Qaeda. That's because many Taliban do not like the al Qaeda people (most of the them foreigners) much at all. The Taliban has tried to maintain good, or at least civil, relations with al Qaeda. But that efforts has frayed to the point where al Qaeda big shots like Osama bin Laden spends most of his time staying hidden from U.S. UAVs, Pakistani troops and hostile Pushtun tribesmen.

Pakistani officials believe that the multimillion dollar rewards on bin Laden and other al Qaeda leaders may now actually work. The problem has always been that you can't capture an al Qaeda big shot without the assent of local tribal leaders. For a large chunk of that reward, that assent may now be had from some chiefs, and bin Laden knows it. He also knows that he has lost an irreplaceable number of veteran leaders (and allies), to U.S. Hellfire missiles, in the last two years. Rumor has it that big money was paid for the information that made some of these attacks possible. It's bad enough that al Qaeda is losing senior people, it's worse that they are now seen, by local tribesmen, as a way to get rich. Al Qaeda leaders now know what it's like to be terrorized.





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