The Omen

August 15th, 2009
Whether an omen portends an ominous or promising future event lies in the eyes of the beholder.  Three years ago, as the US appeared forever bogged down in the Iraq war, such an omen occurred.  For the US, it ultimately boded a more promising future; for al-Qaeda, an ominous one.  Last week, a similar omen occurred in Pakistan.  Does a similar fate now await the Taliban?

The Iraq omen occurred in June 2006 before two factors eventually contributing to stabilization there had.  Neither the Sunni Awakening, by which local tribal leaders came to understand their al-Qaeda ally posed a much more serious threat to their existence than did US forces, and the surge, by which US force levels would significantly increase, were yet in play.  Violence wracked the country.  On June 8th, US Air Force F-16 aircraft dropped two 500 pound bombs on a safe-house.  Iraq’s most wanted terrorist mastermind, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, was inside.

Under Zarqawi, violence in Iraq had drastically increased, killing thousands.  The more gruesome his acts of violence, the greater glee he seemed to take.  While personally performing beheadings of Westerners, the extremist zealot proved an equal opportunity terrorist, targeting fellow Muslims as well.

Announcing his loyalty to Osama bin Laden in October 2003, Zarqawi was appointed later that year as his “Prince of al-Qaeda in Iraq.”  But, based on Zarqawi’s lust for blood, his selection by Osama proved unwise.  Zarqawi’s violent streak eroded early local support.  Nor did Iraqis like it that Osama—a Saudi—was authorizing Zarqawi—a Jordanian—to kill Iraqis.  Soon after Zarqawi’s appointment, enraged local Iraqis began providing US forces with tips on al-Qaeda activities.  A trickle initially, such tips soon flowed.  Eighteen months later, they would lead to the F-16 mission that killed Zarqawi.

On August 7, 2009, missiles launched from a US unmanned aerial vehicle (probably a “Predator” UAV) slammed into a safe-house entered by Pakistan’s No. 1 wanted criminal, Baitullah Mehsud, 39.

Unlike Zarqawi, Mehsud was a home grown terrorist.  A self-proclaimed leader of the Taliban in Pakistan, he commanded anywhere from 10,000 to 20,000 fighters.  His initial popularity waned too as he, like Zarqawi, embarked upon a campaign of terror and violence unparalleled in Pakistan’s history—of which most victims were Muslim.

The low point to which Mehsud’s bloody campaign sank was evidenced by his effort to man his suicide bomber ranks.  In stark contrast to the Christmas gifting “Toys for Tots” program for young American children initiated years ago by US Marines now fighting the Taliban in bordering Afghanistan, Mehsud initiated a “Bombs for Tots” program for Pakistani children.  Buying or kidnapping children as young as seven, Mehsud wrapped them in explosive devices and sent them on their way against selected targets.  Few understood the consequences of their actions as most were probably accompanied by a handler who detonated the device from a safe distance as the child approached the target.

Ironically, while placing no value on the lives of Muslim children, Mehsud’s final act was a selfish effort to sustain his own life, entering the safe-house seeking treatment for a kidney ailment.  The attending doctor, Mehsud’s second wife and several bodyguards were all killed as well.

Mehsud was well aware a silent “Predator” was hunting him.  Dozens of terrorist leaders had been killed by the high-flying UAV.  This unnerved him, causing him to threaten a major attack against the US unless the strikes stopped.  Nine of the last ten UAV strikes in the region targeted Mehsud and/or his network, one coming within minutes of killing him as he attended a funeral.

The increasing effectiveness of UAV attacks should be telling to terrorist leaders.  As good as it is, such effectiveness is limited by human intelligence as to a leader’s location.  The closer the attacks on Mehsud came, the more accurate was the intelligence locals provided.  Pakistanis grow weary of the Taliban, evidenced by formation of local militias following the terrorist group’s brutal but short reign over the Swat Valley.  And, as in Zarqawi’s demise, local tips were a factor in Mehsud’s.

As it proved for al-Qaeda in Iraq, let us hope for the Taliban in Pakistan this omen bodes ominous as well.

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