WASHINGTON - A nearly two-month lull in US drone strikes in Pakistan has helped embolden Al Qaeda and several Pakistani militant factions to regroup, increase attacks against Pakistani security forces, and threaten intensified strikes against allied forces in Afghanistan, US and Pakistani officials say.
The insurgents are increasingly taking advantage of tensions raised by a US airstrike in November that killed two dozen Pakistani soldiers in border outposts, severely straining relations between the two nations.
The CIA, hoping to avoid making matters worse while Pakistan completes a wide-ranging review of its security relationship with the United States, has not conducted a drone strike since mid-November.
Diplomats and intelligence analysts say the pause in CIA missile strikes - the longest in Pakistan in more than three years - is offering for now greater freedom of movement to an insurgency that had been splintered by infighting and battered by US drone attacks in recent months.
Several feuding factions said last week that they were patching up their differences, at least temporarily, to improve their image after a series of kidnappings and, by some accounts, to focus on fighting Americans in Afghanistan.
Other militant groups continue attacking Pakistani forces. Last week, Taliban insurgents killed 15 security soldiers who had been kidnapped in retaliation for the death of a militant commander.
The spike in violence in the tribal areas - up nearly 10 percent in 2011 from the previous year, according to a new independent report - comes amid reports of negotiations between Pakistan’s government and some local Taliban factions, although the military denies that such talks are taking place.
A logistics operative with the Haqqani terrorist group, which uses sanctuaries in Pakistan to carry out attacks on allied troops in Afghanistan, said militants could still hear drones flying surveillance missions, day and night. “There are still drones, but there is no fear anymore,’’ he said in a ephone interview.
Overall, drone strikes in Pakistan dropped to 64 last year, compared with 117 strikes in 2010, according to The Long War Journal, a website that monitors the attacks. Analysts attribute the decrease to a dwindling number of senior Al Qaeda leaders and a pause in strikes last year after the arrest in January of Raymond Davis, a CIA security contractor who killed two Pakistanis; the Navy SEAL raid in May that killed Osama bin Laden; and the US airstrike Nov. 26.
Pakistan ordered drone operations at its Shamsi air base closed after that airstrike, but CIA drones flying from bases in Afghanistan continue to fly surveillance missions in tribal areas. The drones would be cleared to fire on a senior militant leader if there were credible intelligence and minimal risk to civilians, US officials said. But for now, Predator and Reaper drones are holding their fire, the longest pause in Pakistan since July 2008.
“It makes sense that a lull in US operations, coupled with ineffective Pakistani efforts, might lead the terrorists to become complacent and try to regroup,’’ one US official said. “We know that Al Qaeda’s leaders were constantly taking the US counterterrorism operations into account, spending considerable time planning their movements and protecting their communications to try to stay alive.’’
A Defense Department official put it more bluntly: “They’re clearly taking advantage of this period. They’re not stupid.’’
Several administration officials said yesterday that any lull in drone strikes did not signal a weakening of the country’s counterterrorism efforts, suggesting that strikes could resume soon. “Without commenting on specific counterterrorism operations, Al Qaeda is severely weakened, having suffered major losses in recent years,’’ said George Little of the Defense Department.
Analysts say the hiatus coincides with and probably has accelerated a flurry of insurgent activity and new strategies.
In the past week, leaflets distributed in North Waziristan said the Afghan Taliban and Al Qaeda had urged Pakistani militant groups to set aside their differences and focus on striking US-led allied forces in Afghanistan.