This past weekend, U.S. helicopters staged an assault on Pakistani territory, killing 30. It is, as we all know, something of a magic number. I explain this week for PBS:
We know those happen routinely, and we can infer from the presence of the magic number of 30 dead bad guys that we probably don’t know what really happened. We do know the war inside Pakistan is escalating in many ways: Katherine Tiedemann, who manages a database of drone attacks inside Pakistan, noted today that September has been the “busiest month on record” for the number and fatality of drone strikes.
What we don’t know is how effective these strikes are. There is an old story on The Onion, a satirical newspaper, which notes the U.S. has killed off 80 percent of al-Qaida’s #2 men. Unfortunately, that’s not entirely satirical: by all counts, al-Qaida has been “stressed” or “degraded” by these drone strikes, and its institutional capacity has been severely diminished. The U.S. has killed several versions of al-Qaida’s senior leadership, whether Abu Laith al-Libi or Mustafa Ahmed Muhammad Uthman Abu al-Yazid or Shaikh al-Fateh — but, despite CIA director Leon Panetta’s insistence that these killings will “flush out” al-Qaida’s senior leadership, there’s no evidence it’s actually affecting the war. Even as the estimates of the number of al-Qaida actually in Afghanistan decrease, the violence of the war there climbs steadily higher.