The US has kept up its Drone strikes in the two Waziristans of Pakistan. While this is a continuation of the policy initiated under George Bush in August, 2008, the stepped-up strikes since the beginning of the New Year are meant to convey a message of renewed resolve to go after Al Qaeda and Taliban terrorists operating from Pakistani territory unshaken by the claimed success of the Pakistani Taliban in killing seven officers of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and one of the Jordanian intelligence in the Khost area of Afghanistan on December 30, 2009, through a Jordanian agent of the Jordanian intelligence, who betrayed the two intelligence agencies. The stepped-up Drone strikes are meant to show that the tragedy suffered by the CIA has not affected its determination to go after the terrorists. Any wrong message that the CIA's morale has suffered would have been counter-productive.
The Drone strikes depend partly on human intelligence and partly on technical intelligence. Since August, 2008, there was a considerable improvement in the flow of HUMINT as could be seen from the increasing successes of the strikes. The success of a Drone strike in killing Baitullah Mehsud, the then Amir of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), in August , 2009, was made possible by precise TECHINT pinpointing the house of Baitullah's father-in-law in South Waziristan and equally precise HUMINT indicating that Baitullah had come to his father-in-law's house for medical assistance.
While the flow of TECHINT will not be affected by the Khost tragedy, the flow of HUMINT can be in the short-term. This is because the CIA has lost some experienced field operatives with considerable knowledge of the area across the Af-Pak border. It is also because the CIA is likely to be more cautious in its operations in future and more careful in assessing the dependability of its sources. Extra or over caution tends to slow down HUMINT operations affecting the flow of HUMINT.
In the short-term till the CIA is able to find alternate ways of keeping up the HUMINT flow without exposing its field operatives to physical dangers due to excessive risk-taking as one saw at Khost, the TEHINT agencies will have to step up their coverage in order to make up for the difficulties that could be faced by the CIA in its HUMINT coverage.
The US will not be able to depend on Pakistan's intelligence agencies to fill the gap in HUMINT. While there is no evidence of any institutional collusion between Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and the TTP, there is definite collusion between the ISI and the Afghan Taliban operating from the Quetta area of Balochistan and between the ISI and the Haqqani network operating in the Khost and adjoining areas of Afghanistan from North Waziristan. The question of the CIA depending on the ISI for HUMINT collection would not, therefore, arise.
The Afghan and Uzbeck intelligence agencies could be useful to the CIA in its efforts to fill the HUMINT gap. The fact that a joint operation with the Jordanian intelligence proved catastrophic should not inhibit the CIA from exploring the possibilities of joint operations with the intelligence agencies of Afghanistan and Uzbekistan. There would always be the risk of double agents betraying the CIA, but the risk has to be faced.
There is no intelligence without risk-taking. The tragedy struck the CIA on December 30, 2009, not because it took risks, but because the risk was not combined with adequate caution. It has been reported in the US media that the CIA did subject the Jordanian suicide bomber to frisking, but he triggered the improvised explosive device in his suicide vest just as the frisking was about to start. This is what has been happening in Pakistan repeatedly--TTP suicide bombers set off the IED just as the frisking is about to start. This has resulted in the death of a number of policemen in Pakistan who died while trying to frisk TTP suspects.
Unfortunately, no new technology has been devised so far which could enable the neutralization of the triggering device of an IED carried by a person from a distance without subjecting him to physical frisking. This problem poses a serious dilemma without a solution. One idea that could be tried is frisking of suspects through robots before they are brought inside a camp for a more detailed search.
The CIA would now go after Hakimullah Mehsud, the Amir of the TTP, and Hussain Mehsud, its trainer of suicide bombers, with greater determination than before now that the video released by the TTP has established that the TTP had motivated and trained the Jordanian suicide bomber. Baitullah suffered from health problems. His movements were, therefore, confined to the South Waziristan area. It was comparatively easier to hunt him and run him down, but even then, it took two years. Hakimullah and Hussain move around in a much larger area in the Pakistani tribal belt. Running them down is going to be even more difficult. That should not deter the CIA from going after them.
The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai