The first U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan in almost six months targeted militants from Afghanistan’s Haqqani network, killing one of the insurgent group’s senior commanders, Pakistani intelligence officials said on Thursday.
Drones struck two locations in Pakistan’s North Waziristan tribal region, near the border with Afghanistan, killing at least 11 suspected militants on Wednesday, these officials added. The second strike, at around 2:30 a.m. local time on Thursday, hit a Haqqani network compound near Miranshah, North Waziristan’s capital, killing at least eight.
Among those eight was Haji Gul, described by Pakistani intelligence officials and local militants as a senior Haqqani field commander whose advice was regularly sought by the group’s leadership.
The Haqqani network is part of the Afghan Taliban but operates autonomously, mostly in eastern Afghanistan. Its main base is in North Waziristan.
A vehicle, rigged for use in a suicide attack, was also destroyed in the attack, Pakistani officials said. They said the militants were preparing for a mission across the border in Afghanistan.
The Haqqani network has carried out a series of high-profile attacks in Afghanistan against Western targets, including the Sept. 13, 2011, assault on the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.
The U.S. Department of State formally designated it a terrorist organization in 2012.
Several U.S. officials have accused Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency of backing the Haqqanis, a charge the ISI denied. In 2011, then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen described the group as a “veritable arm” of the ISI.
The U.S. has long been asking Pakistan to go after militant groups in North Waziristan. Pakistan so far hasn’t launched a full-scale military offensive in the region, where several militant groups, including al Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban, operate. However, it has regularly carried out airstrikes and limited ground operations against the Pakistani Taliban in North Waziristan.
In the first drone strike, which broke the near-six-month lull around 8:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Uzbek and ethnic Punjabi militants were targeted. At least three were killed.
The Pakistani Taliban and its ally, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, separately claimed responsibility for Sunday’s attack on Karachi’s Jinnah International Airport, in which at least 35 people were killed, including 10 attackers.
There is widespread opposition among Pakistanis to U.S. drones, and the government officially condemns the strikes as violations of Pakistan’s sovereignty and calls them counterproductive to peace and stabilization efforts. The Pakistani government on Thursday condemned the two North Waziristan drone strikes.
“These strikes are a violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said. “Additionally, these strikes have a negative impact on the government’s efforts to bring peace and stability in Pakistan and the region.”
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s government began a tentative peace process with the Pakistani Taliban in January, which led to a cease-fire in March. There was little progress, however, and the cease-fire ended in April.
Islamabad hasn’t formally abandoned peace efforts, but talks have hit a deadlock and officials say an operation against militants in North Waziristan is being considered.
Maulana Sami-ul-Haq, a prominent cleric nominated by the Pakistani Taliban to negotiate with the government, told reporters on Thursday that negotiations are the only way to end the conflict with the Taliban. “Drone strikes kill innocent people, and they have started because the negotiations have stopped,” Mr. Haq said.