|US picks off nine al-Qaeda leaders|
|THE CIA is providing Pakistani tribesmen with secret electronic transmitters to help target and kill al-Qaeda leaders in a tactic that could aid Pakistan's army as it takes the battle against extremism to the Taliban heartland.|
As the army mops up Taliban resistance in the Swat Valley, where a defence official predicted fighting would be over within days, the focus is shifting to Waziristan and the Taliban warlord Baitullah Mehsud. A deadly war of wits is already under way in the north-western region, where tribesmen say the US is using advanced technology and old-fashioned cash to target the enemy. Over the past 18 months, the US has launched more than 50 drone attacks.
US officials claim nine of the top 20 al-Qaeda figures have been killed. That success is reportedly in part thanks to the mysterious electronic devices, dubbed "chips" or "pathrai" (the Pashto word for a metal device), which have become a source of fear and fascination. "Everyone is talking about it," said Taj Muhammad Wazir, a student from south Waziristan. "People are scared that if a pathrai comes into your house, a drone will attack it."
Until now, the drone strikes were the only threat to militants in Waziristan, where the Pakistani army had, in effect, abandoned the fight. But now, emboldened by a successful campaign to drive militants out of Swat, the army is preparing to regain lost ground in the more remote eastern tribal belt. It will be a much tougher campaign, with the army pitched against a formidable, battle-hardened opponent. Taliban fighters ambushed a military position at the weekend in what could be a prelude to much more intense combat.
For the US military, drones have proved to be an effective weapon against al-Qaeda targets, although they have done little to prevent militant attacks inside Pakistan. On January 1, a drone-fired missile killed Usama al-Kimi, a Kenyan militant who orchestrated last year's Marriott Hotel bombing in Islamabad, a senior official with Pakistan's ISI spy agency said.
US President Barack Obama has approved the drone campaign, which is cheap and limits the danger posed to US troops. But the strikes have many unintended victims. A Pakistani newspaper estimated that 700 people had been killed since 2006, most of them civilians, as a result of drone attacks.
For the tribesmen who plant the microchips and get it wrong, the consequences can be terrible. Last month the Taliban issued a video confession by Habib ur Rehman, 19. "The money was good," he says in a quavering voice, describing how he was paid 20,000 rupees ($A310) to drop microchips hidden in cigarette wrappers at the home of a target. Mr Rehman says his handler promised a big financial reward if the strike was successful, and protection if he was caught. The end of the video shows Mr Rehman being shot dead with three other alleged spies. Residents say such executions -- there have been at least 100 -- indicate how much the drone strikes have worried the Taliban.
In Wana, the capital of south Waziristan, foreign fighters are shunning the bazaars and shops, and locals are shunning the fighters. "Before, the common people used to sit with the militants," said Mr Wazir. "Now they are also afraid."