Early on the morning of Wednesday, 3 September, just before people were waking for the first of their daily prayers, a squad of US and Afghan commandos attacked the small village of Angoor Adda in South Waziristan, Pakistan.
'I saw 15 bodies inside and outside two homes,' Habib Khan Wazir told Associated Press. 'They had been shot in the head.' Most of those killed were women and children.
The attack may not have been the first ground attack by US forces in Pakistan — it has maintained a military presence since soon after September 11, 2001 — but it is the first to be publicly confirmed. Pakistan has also been conducting attacks against militants in Waziristan, but this and other US attacks have not been cleared by Islamabad.
The Angoor Adda attack was followed, the next day, by a missile strike that killed five 'foreign militants'. On Friday, another missile attack reportedly killed five more civilians.
All three attacks occurred less than a week into a ceasefire brokered between the Pakistan Government and militants in honour of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Further strikes this week have claimed more lives, most of them civilians.
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd endorsed the Angor Adda attack, saying that the US is acting 'appropriately' in this and other unilateral strikes.
It is true that hardcore Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters cannot be negotiated with. But military strikes are a blunt instrument, particularly in the rugged tribal frontier of northern Pakistan. Such strikes end up killing more civilians than militants and offer no solutions to the underlying social and economic conditions that generate conflict.
That reality has yet to dawn on the US, although NATO now claims it will no longer undertake unilateral strikes within Pakistan.
Analysts note that US strikes have increased since Pervez Musharraf, Washington's staunchest ally in the War on Terrorism, resigned as President of Pakistan. Freed from the fear that its unilateral strikes would create resentment towards Musharraf, they have now decided that it is open slather on Pakistan's Taliban, Al Qaeda and affiliated militants. With the increase in attacks comes an increase in civilian casualties.
The presumption underlying this strategy is that the risk of civilian casualties is outweighed by the capture or elimination of high value targets. In this respect the US strategy has not changed since September 11. There is a belief in the Pentagon that the removal of individual leaders will win the battle against Muslim extremists and reduce the likelihood of attacks in the West.
Yet no major Al Qaeda or Taliban leader was captured or killed during the Angoor Adda raid. And even if other strikes manage to eliminate key figures, the political capital lost from the civilian casualties largely outweighs the tactical gains. They may also constitute war crimes, although the prospect is unlikely to tax lawyers in Brussels and Washington.
The population of Angoor Adda and throughout Waziristan is predominantly Pashtun. They are ethnically identical to the people who live across the border in neighbouring Afghanistan. A civilian casualty in either community is seen as a crime against fellow Pashtuns. The Taliban cashes in on the subsequent resentment these deaths incur by claiming that foreign forces are seeking to subjugate them. Only the Taliban, the movement argues, can keep them safe and guard their honour.
Already the US has killed many civilians in Afghanistan since its October 2001 invasion. It stands accused by the UN of killing up to 90 civilians during an operation in Nawababad last month.
People in these parts are suspicious of foreigners, and with good reason. Much of that sentiment has to do with centuries of interference by external powers, most recently the British Raj and the Pakistan Government, that has left the region politically marginalised and economically undeveloped.
The casual nature with which Western forces excuse civilian casualties as an inevitable cost of bringing the battle to the militants suggests an abject ignorance of this history. Nor does it factor in the 'Pakhtunwali' honour-code of these tribal lands.
'Even people who do not like the Taliban will support [their] attacks against foreigners out of revenge for those slain,' notes Mansur Mahsud, an analyst with the Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies and himself a member of a major tribal family from Waziristan.
The Taliban movement is not a homogenous entity. Some of its members are ideologically driven. Known as the hardcore Taliban, they share Al Qaeda's vision of a strict theocracy along the lines of their narrow interpretation of the Deobandi school of Islamic thought. Others are motivated by local tribal politics. Others still are criminals or mercenaries who have affiliated themselves with the Taliban as a matter of expediency.
In December 2007, British officials held secret talks with a senior Taliban commander in Helmand, Afghanistan, in an attempt to make him change sides. The gesture was quickly withdrawn, however, after news of the negotiations was leaked to the press. Britain faced extreme criticism from Washington, and Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai expelled the British diplomats involved in the negotiations. This strategy has subsequently been out of the question.
Yet at some point military operations will have to be tempered with non-military strategies such as this. If a diverse approach is not adopted, Western forces may find that they are opposed even after the last Taliban and Al Qaeda leader has been eliminated by predator drones or commandoes.
Mustafa Qadri is a Sydney journalist based in Pakistan. He was formerly a lawyer specialising in public international law, who worked at the Australian Attorney-General's Department representing the Government in native title claims and international crime treaty negotiations, and at the Pilbara Native Title Service.