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The (Possible) Death of Ilyas Kashmiri and Its Impact on the Internal Administration Debate Regarding Drone Strikes

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Sunday, June 5, 2011 at 3:59 PM

Hot on the heels of a National Security Council debate last Thursday concerning whether to reduce the pace or scope of CIA drone strikes in Pakistan (reported by the Wall Street Journal here; please do click through and read this remarkable story, and also check out Ken Anderson’s take here), it appears that a drone strike in South Waziristan on Friday last week probably killed Ilyas Kashmiri, an increasingly prominent terrorist linked to a wide array of attacks and planned attacks in Pakistan, India, Europe, and the United States.  That is a *huge* success if true, one that might have a greater short-term operational significance than the far-more-widely noted killing of UBL.  Whether it impacts the ongoing debate within the Administration is unclear, however, since there is little doubt that even a reduced pace/scope program would still encompass figure of Kashmiri’s stature (this is just my speculation, but I would guess that the NSC debate most likely concerns whether to pull back on strikes directed toward rank-and-file/mid-tier figures, probably not those directed at senior leadership).  There also is little doubt that the Pakistanis were happy to see this particular person’s death.  As the AP reported:

While it was unclear how Kashmiri was tracked, his name was on a list of militants that both countries recently agreed to jointly target as part of measures to restore trust, officials have said.

This, of course, underlines that Pakistani support for drone strikes does continue at least as to some targets.  The interesting questions going forward concern strikes that target individuals or groups of particular strategic concern to the United States but that are not necessarily deemed hostile by Pakistani authorities, such as the Haqqani Network.

The Kashmiri story is also important as an illustration of the organizational complexities involved in these debates.  Again, from the AP:

A fax purportedly sent by the militant group Kashmiri was heading — Harakat-ul-Jihad al-Islami’s feared “313 Brigade” — confirmed Kashmiri was “martyred” in Friday’s 11:15 p.m. strike.

This bit of organizational complexity  is the sort of detail ordinarily left out of public discussion of figures in the FATA region such as Kashmiri.  More typically, one sees generic references to someone being part of al Qaeda or the Taliban, without reference to the complex network of groups and individuals which to varying degrees have some form of relationship with one another in that area.  As to Kashmiri himself, there are many media reports suggesting that he has indeed become a key “al Qaeda” figure in recent years.  But what about his larger organization?  The State Department did not formally designate HuJI as a foreign terrorist organization until last summer, though when it did so it explicitly emphasized the cooperation between HuJI and al Qaeda.   Is HuJI best described as “part of” al Qaeda, then, as an organization whose members support al Qaeda, as a co-belligerent of al Qaeda, or none of the above?  These questions, of course, are highly relevant to the ongoing debate over the meaning and potential need for reform of the 9/18/01 AUMF.