Latest Drone Strike Targets Haqqani: Officials Say It's Not Clear if Powerful Taliban Leader Was Hit

In the latest of a flurry of moves against top Taliban leaders in recent weeks, U.S. unmanned aircraft launched a strike Thursday against a convoy of vehicles believed to be carrying Sirajuddin Haqqani, the powerful leader of Pakistani Taliban forces in eastern Afghanistan, where American casualties have been highest.

U.S. and Pakistani officials say they don’t have confirmation that Haqqani was actually in one of the vehicles that was struck, but initial intelligence reports indicate that he might have been. “He was targeted as part of a strike, and we think he might have been hit, but I’m waiting for the DNA tests. We’ve been trying to kill him for a long time, and he’s escaped before,” a senior Pakistani official told NEWSWEEK. A Taliban official in the region said he too believes that Haqqani was the target of the strike, but “whether or not he was in the car is not clear yet.” There were reports that two missiles had been fired; one at a compound, another at a vehicle.

Believed to be in his late 20s or early 30s with a bushy black beard, Haqqani leads the Taliban insurgency from bases in the ungoverned tribal area of Waziristan in mountainous northwestern Pakistan.

If confirmed, the death of Haqqani would mark another in a stunning series of successes against the Taliban leadership in Pakistan timed with the U.S. offensive across the border in southern Afghanistan. Just last week, U.S. and Pakistani forces arrested Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban’s military commander and the deputy to Mullah Mohammed Omar, the shadowy Afghan Taliban leader. NEWSWEEK reported this week that Mullah Abdul Salam, described as the Taliban movement’s “shadow governor” of Afghanistan’s Kunduz province, was taken into custody about a week ago. It was not immediately clear if the attempted strike on Haqqani was related to intelligence obtained from those earlier captures.

U.S. officials say that they believe that another top Taliban leader in Pakistan, Hakimullah Mehsud, was killed in a missile strike in January, possibly along with his deputy, Qari Hussain Mehsud. Hakimullah Mehsud was believed to be one of the planners of the Qaeda suicide bombing that killed seven CIA employees and a Jordanian intelligence officer on Dec. 30, 2009.  Last August another drone strike killed Baitullah Mehsud, Hakimullah’s predecessor and the man considered the source of most of the suicide bombers deep inside Pakistan, and who may have been behind the assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto.

Haqqani is the son of Maulvi Jalaluddin Haqqani, an aging, ailing former Afghan mujahedin commander who became legendary leading the fight against the Soviet occupation in the 1980s. U.S. military officials told NEWSWEEK in 2008 that under Sirajuddin Haqqani's leadership, his network had developed from small-unit, small-arms tactics into a major force amounting to some 7,000 to 10,000 insurgents in eastern Afghanistan.

In recent years Pakistani inaction had allowed the Haqqanis to grow from one insurgent group among many into perhaps the deadliest threat to U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Beginning in 2008, top U.S. military and CIA officers began confronting their Pakistani counterparts with evidence of links between Haqqani and the ISI, Pakistan’s intelligence service, which once viewed some extremist groups as strategic assets. National-security adviser Jim Jones, among other senior U.S. officials, have recently redoubled the pressure on their counterparts at the top of the Pakistani security apparatus, including Army Chief of Staff Ashfaq Kayani, to crack down in coordination with President Obama’s Afghan offensive.

It was not immediately clear why the Pakistanis appear to be cooperating much more than they had in the past. However, the Pakistani government has grown more and more concerned about the danger to its own stability from extremist forces it once thought it could control. Pakistani officials may also want a greater say in forging a political solution in Afghanistan once the U.S. offensive is over.