A series of missile strikes killed at least 19 suspected insurgents Saturday in Pakistan's tribal borderlands, signaling that the new year would bring no respite in a relentless campaign of U.S. attacks employing aerial drones to target militant figures.
The strikes in the North Waziristan tribal agency were apparently aimed at the Haqqani network, an offshoot of the Taliban movement and one of the deadliest foes of U.S. and other Western forces in Afghanistan. The group's fighters operate mainly in the eastern part of Afghanistan but seek shelter in neighboring Pakistan.
The multiple missile hits in the same area over several hours, which targeted two vehicles and a compound, suggested that intelligence might have indicated the presence of a high-level commander. The compound belonged to a man affiliated with a commander named Gul Bhadur, who is a senior associate of Siraj Haqqani, the network's chieftain.
Presumed U.S. drones staged nearly 120 missile strikes last year in Pakistan's tribal areas, known to be used as a sanctuary by a variety of militant groups. North Waziristan is the Haqqani group's home base.
With drone strikes steadily intensifying, this remote-control war is politically unpopular in Pakistan. However, its government is thought to provide assistance, both active and tacit, in tracking militant figures to be targeted.
Officials with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization have described the strikes as a highly effective means of targeting insurgent commanders who would otherwise be out of reach because Western ground forces are not supposed to operate in Pakistan.
Saturday's strikes coincided with the year's first reported deaths of Western troops in Afghanistan. Both deaths occurred in southern Afghanistan, one in an insurgent attack and the other in an explosion, the Western military said. The nationalities were not disclosed.
Also Saturday, U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano told journalists in Kabul, the Afghan capital, that American trainers would soon arrive to bolster efforts by Afghan security forces and customs officials to police border crossings with Pakistan. Drugs, money and weaponry flow nearly unimpeded across the long, rugged frontier.
Special correspondent Ali reported from Peshawar and Times staff writer King from Kabul.