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Killing of top Al Qaeda militant Ilyas Kashmiri only a small US victory

The details surrounding the apparent death of top Al Qaeda militant Ilyas Kashmiri late Friday show a short-term win for the US approach toward Pakistan, but little long-term headway in the war.

The details surrounding the apparent death of top Al Qaeda militant Ilyas Kashmiri late Friday show a short-term win for the US approach toward Pakistan, but little long-term headway in the war.

Mr. Kashmiri helped plot attacks ranging from the 2008 Mumbai massacre to an effort to strike US defense firm Lockheed-Martin, which makes drones. Pakistan’s Interior Minister Rehman Malik said he’s “98 percent sure” that Kashmiri is dead, cut down by a drone late Friday near Wana in the South Waziristan region bordering Afghanistan.

The death of Kashmiri would appear to be the latest fruit of US persistence, pushing onward despite Pakistani demonstrations against drones, bruised relations with the Pakistani military, and an American public skeptical of continued engagement here.

But these efforts to chip away at the most wanted list and chase militants from one region to the next come with high costs and are not yet putting militant outfits out of business, say experts.

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Militancy has decentralized and “now they have come to the point where even if the leader is dead, the network still persists,” says Safiullah Gul, a senior journalist from Waziristan.

Locals living near the drone strike report Mr. Kashmiri arrived on Thursday, says Mr. Gul. The residents said Kashmiri arrived from neighboring North Waziristan, a region infested with international terrorists.

With US pressure on Pakistan to launch a military offensive on North Waziristan, says Gul, “the militants have started moving” out of that area. “The locals were talking that he might have come for some negotiations” with a local warlord, either for shelter or safe passage onward to Afghanistan.

End game in Pakistan

The Afghan War’s endgame is playing out in Pakistan. The US strategy has been to target militant leaders with drones and press the Pakistani military to remove borderland sanctuaries. The military has tried to resist both, whipping up anti-US sentiment in an effort to preserve some militants to influence affairs in Afghanistan. Both are trying to enter a larger Afghan peace process with the best possible facts on the battlefield.

In late spring, riding a wave of anti-US sentiment over a captured CIA agent, Pakistan’s military was indicating quietly to reporters that a North Waziristan offensive was not in the cards. However, the US raid to kill Osama bin Laden and the terrorist infiltration of a naval base in Karachi have shaken popular faith in the military’s handling of national security.

With US pressure mounting and less street support for resistance to it, the Pakistani military over the past week has indicated openness to a limited offensive on North Waziristan and agreed to joint intelligence operations with the US against five most-wanted militants, including Ilyas Kashmiri.

Gul rattles off a list of slain terror chiefs including Osama bin Laden and Baitullah Mehsud whose deaths did not deter their followers from fresh attacks. He likens it do the death of a father in a family. “If he’s old, and his kids are grown up, they will feel a vacuum with his death certainly, but the family will go on.”

‘Mental health crisis’

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Meanwhile, the long conflict is leaving scars.

The people in Pakistan’s northwest frontier are experiencing a “mental health crisis,” says Dr. Khalid Mufti, a psychiatrist based for decades in Peshawar. Drawing on a survey of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Province last month, he says 70 percent of the population shows signs of psychiatric stress.

Some of that is due to poverty, some from the trauma of terrorist attacks and military strikes. He says the drones are recurring delusion among some patients: “Look, the drones are coming again!”

While many of the drones are precise, they still can ruin innocent lives. Ajab Noor, a 10-year-old boy, lost his father to a 2008 drone attack. He says his father hitched a ride home from a trip to sell his car when a drone destroyed the vehicle he was in.

“They were not fighters who were along with my father, they were civilians,” he says. “After that, I couldn’t continue school because we were now poor.”

Many locals do support drone attacks

But many in northwestern Pakistan do support the drones, seeing them as the only serious challenge to militants. There’s deep skepticism here that the military operations are a serious effort to crush the militants.

They point to the most recent talk of a North Waziristan offensive. Over the past week, at least two checkpoints have been removed from roads inside the region, according to two journalists and a local resident.

“We saw the same thing before the [South Waziristan] operation, when American pressure said it had to start,” says a local resident now living in Peshawar. He requested anonymity out of fear of military authorities. “They opened up all the roads to allow all the militants to go.”

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In North Waziristan, the removed check-posts make it easier for some militants to reach Bannu, a city in the settled areas of Pakistan.

“If you want to get Afghan militants from tribal areas, that may help them,” says Sami Yousufzai, a senior journalist based in Islamabad.

Porous borders, vast wilderness

The military has been reluctant to tackle North Waziristan because the region is home to allied Afghan militants, particularly the Haqqani Network. Mixed in with the Haqqanis, however, are groups that are enemies of the military, including militants from the Mehsud tribe, foreign fighters, and Al Qaeda.

The lifting of checkpoints on that particular road might work as a sieve, allowing just the right kind of militants to escape.

“That’s a good opportunity for Afghan militants, but I don’t think the Pakistani militants, especially the Mehsud militants would use that,” says Mr. Yousufzai.

Years of Pakistani offensives have seen militants shift from one tribal area to the next, evading any sort of Waterloo. Just last week, a group of several hundred militants evicted from Swat by the military in 2009 crossed over from Afghanistan into the region of Dir.

The Pakistani military points out that it cannot completely seal off the mountainous terrain, vast wildernesses, and porous borders.

Gul agrees: “It’s not possible to man every area in North or South Waziristan. For that they would need 300,000 to 400,000 military personnel.”

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Military spokesman Gen. Athar Abbas argues that the Dir incident shows that the Army is slowly closing down the space for militants to move. With military operations going on in most of the tribal regions, the settled area of Dir may have looked attractive. (The military and local residents eventually repulsed the group.)

“The more you enhance control over your lost territory, the more space is lost to them,” says General Abbas.

And the scattering of militants before offensives can have its upside – in the case of Kashmiri it may have increased his exposure enough to kill him.

But slow military progress on the ground appears set to ensure that his comrades will live to fight another day.