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A risky gambit:The Pakistani army campaign in South Waziristan

(Para Norwegian Peacebuilding Centre, Noref)

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South Waziristan, a remote mountainous region bordering Afghanistan, is the home base of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), and is considered to be a global hub for Islamic militants. The Pakistani army’s historic coddling and cultivation of militants has ended by creating a Frankenstein monster, which the military is now desperately attempting to control. The insurgents’ increasingly apparent goal is to destabilize and ultimately overthrow the state, as evidenced by the spate of recent terrorist attacks. While the attack on the Mehsud Taliban and the TTP movement was welcomed by Nato members, the campaign’s goals are still uncertain. The general view is that win, lose or draw, this battle will be tougher than the operations in either Swat or Bajaur, and may be the army’s biggest challenge yet in their confrontation with home-grown jihadists.

After a two-week spate of terrorism in late September and October 2009, which killed at least 166 people, the Pakistani army launched Operation Rah e Nijat (Path to Salvation), a retaliatory ground offensive in the Taliban-controlled area of South Waziristan. The operation captured the global media’s attention, as it exemplified the country’s deteriorating security and stability and highlighted the dramatic stakes involved. Over 28,000 Pakistani soldiers initiated combat executing a pincer movement to encircle the homeland of the Mehsud tribe which lies inside a ring of government-held towns. The Mehsud are reputed to be among the fiercest fighters in Pakistan and the army faces 10,000 of them, plus an additional 2,000 or so fighters from Uzbekistan, al-Qaeda and the Punjab.

Both Afghanistan and Pakistan are living a perilous moment. Afghanistan, besides its ongoing war and violence, confronts a governance crisis and a president who stands accused of stealing the election. Pakistan has embarked on a high-risk military campaign to combat the escalating terrorism that is destabilizing the state. Both situations at this moment are cliff-hangers, but the Pakistanis may have been dealt an even more difficult and complicated hand than the government of Hamid Karzai.

Ambiguous objectives

While the attack on the Mehsud Taliban and their Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) movement was welcomed by Nato members, the campaign’s goals are still uncertain. In the first place, many of the militants have ties to, or were trained by, the army and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). The army also has widespread doubts that the resolve of US and Nato regional military commitments are firm. In addition, there is a general consensus that India is deepening its influence in both Afghanistan and the restive Pakistani province of Baluchistan. Hence, the military’s aim may not be to eliminate the insurgency outright, but rather to disperse the rebels and destroy the leadership. The goal would be to cripple its capacity to commit terrorism at will throughout Pakistan, while keeping the insurgents alive as a geopolitical trump card. Nevertheless, despite the elimination of its former leader, Baitullah Mehsud, by a US drone in August, which resulted in a brief succession struggle, the current TTP leadership seems intact and unified.

The obstacles to achieving the objective of neutralizing the Mehsud Taliban in South Waziristan are indeed formidable. In a real sense, the Pakistani army is challenging both history and geography in its South Waziristan campaign. The Mehsud tribesmen possess a tradition of fierce resistance to those who would try to subdue them, a quality fully recognized by the British in the nineteenth century.

A key question is whether Pakistan’s national security establishment has genuinely reassessed its historic ties with Islamic militants and views them now as enemies, rather than defenders of the state and useful pawns to check India’s regional ambitions. Hovering over the operation in South Waziristan is the question of whether the Pakistani military, sceptical of the strength of Washington’s resolve, and fearful of India’s designs on its western border, can sustain the will to win in this operation. More to the point, does it see any advantage in destroying these erstwhile geopolitical allies? If the army ends up being satisfied with merely degrading the TTP as a terrorist threat, the latter will be left wounded but further radicalized, strengthened in the crucial struggle for the support of the people, and better positioned in the long run to terrorize and challenge the state. If the military wages an all-out campaign but fails, the result will be even more devastating.

Background

The army’s historic coddling and cultivation of militants has ended by creating a Frankenstein monster, which the military is now desperately attempting to control. The insurgents’ increasingly apparent goal is to destabilize and ultimately overthrow the state, as evidenced by recent terrorist attacks. Yet the Pakistani army has only fitfully confronted the Taliban in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).

The army launched brief offensives in South Waziristan in recent years, but by the military’s own reckoning, the last two operations against the tribal militants in South Waziristan ended in failure. The January 2004 operation resulted in heavy casualties and led to the infamous Shakai peace agreement in April 2004, followed by agreement with the late Tehrik-i-Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud at Sararogha on 5 February 2005. In late January 2008, the military launched Operation Zalzala to dislodge Mehsud another from his sanctuary. The operation did not faze the Taliban insurgency and within two weeks the military conceded the necessity to revive the Sararogha peace deal.

The army was jolted into action last spring when militants advanced from the Swat valley in the North-West Frontier Province into the districts of Dir and Buner – within 100 kilometres of Islamabad; the army was only able to wrest back the Swat valley from the militants after a two-month campaign. After checking the militant advance in Swat last spring, the military has had the South Waziristan in its gun sights, softening up entrenched rebel positions with sporadic air attacks during the summer. However, this is the fifth army operation against the Pakistani Taliban in the past five years and in each case the results were inconclusive.

Terrorist attacks

The army knew in May that the real source of the mushrooming incidence of terrorist bombings in Pakistan in the past three years was the southernmost tribal agency of South Waziristan. This remote mountainous region bordering Afghanistan is the home base of the TTP, and is considered to be a global hub for militants, responsible for 80% of Pakistan’s terrorist violence, including the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. The army has been planning an operation in South Waziristan since June, but then had its hand forced by the bloody spate of terrorism that engulfed Pakistan in the three weeks prior to launching the campaign. The violence included a militant takeover of the military headquarters in Rawalpindi, and the killing of some 180 people. In the absence of these attacks, the military would probably have opted to wait, continuing to soften up the area for a while longer.

The Taliban militancy may weaken as the main Pakistani Taliban faction is flushed from its stronghold. The general view, however, is that win, lose or draw, this battle will be tougher than the operations in either Swat or Bajaur, and may be the army’s biggest challenge yet in their confrontation with home-grown jihadists.

As air force jets pounded the mountain strongholds of the militants, the army is moving more rapidly than in previous campaigns. It has retaken Koktai, the birthplace of Hakimullah Mehsud, current leader of the Taliban in South Waziristan, and the home town of Qari Hussain Mehsud, a senior Taliban commander known as \\\»the mentor of suicide bombers\\\». But soldiers will soon encounter a defensive perimeter around Kaniguram, the redoubt of tough and experienced Uzbek fighters 2500 metres up in the mountains and a gateway to the Taliban stronghold at Sararogha. As the army advances it risks getting bogged down inside heavily fortified rebel sanctuaries. Thus, the hope is to wrap up the campaign within two months, before winter snows bog down the effort.

Advantages enjoyed by the military

1. The most visible advantage the army has over the insurgency appears to be in its superior numbers and equipment. By deploying almost 30,000 troops it has committed roughly 10,000 more soldiers than the army deployed in Swat in the spring. Pakistani soldiers also have better logistical support and supplies, including appropriate winter gear, than in previous campaigns.

2. The military spent two months pounding enemy positions with air strikes and has had time to prepare itself. The attacks do not represent a reactive counterterrorist measure, except in the narrow sense that the spate of terrorist violence moved the timetable up slightly. In fact, the terrorist attacks were more likely a response to the army’s build-up and the indications of pending military action in South Waziristan. The army, sensing a threat to the Pakistani state for the first time this year, and perhaps feeling that it has its back to the wall, now seems to possess the political will necessary to beat back the insurgents. It initiated the attack aggressively by taking the battle to the Mehsud Taliban with a ground offensive from three directions in order to surround the enemy. The army will continue to benefit from air support.

3. Washington, happy the army was finally taking on this problem along the frontier with Afghanistan, promised to assist with stepped up unmanned flights over the battle area, for reconnaissance and identification of militant leaders in their mountain strongholds. It is also rushing specialized equipment to the military in the area.

4. The army contends that this time it will not reproduce past unsuccessful efforts to subdue the Mehsud and Wazir tribes. These failures reach as far back as the British experience in the nineteenth century and have been mirrored by the army’s bungled attempts in the past few years. Now the army declares that it will follow this invasion with a process of political and economic development, ultimately aiming to integrate Waziristan into the rest of the country.

5. Tribalism could work in the army’s favour. For example, the army was able to negotiate at least a temporary deal with two rival militant leaders in North Waziristan before the battle began. Two Wazir Taliban groups led by Maulvi Nazir and Hafiz Gul Bahadar control territory which surrounds the Mehsud stronghold that is the now the army’s battlefield. In exchange for the army granting the insurgents safe conduct for all their movements of men and supplies (and most likely also offering them sums of money), the rivals of Hakimullah Mehsud pledged to remain neutral and refrain from attacking the army or its supply lines as it advanced through their territory.

6. It appears that this time the political will to beat back the terrorist threat in FATA is real. The army, the government and the general population all agree the time has come to deal with the Pakistani Taliban. Public sentiment, a significant percentage of which had previously favoured the militants as defenders of Islam and Pakistani nationalism, has turned against them since the events last spring in Swat. After the first ten days of the present campaign, the military claims that over two hundred jihadists have been killed against a much smaller fraction of the army’s soldiers. However, the results so far appear inconclusive and the reality is still open to speculation, as the army has virtually blocked access to the area by journalists.

At this juncture the difficulties and risks the operation faces are not inconsiderable and would appear to counter the military’s optimism.

Disadvantages confronting the military

1. If the army is better prepared now, the militants, in fact, have had years to train fighters, prepare their bunkers, and stockpile weapons and ammunition. This forces the army to deal with the insurgents, at least for the short term, with a primarily military strategy — as opposed to a comprehensive counterinsurgency approach. There is little evidence so far of the long-term counterinsurgency measures designed to protect and win the support of the population. It remains to be seen whether the army can achieve enough to allow for the development side of the operation to take hold.

2. The ratio of Pakistani soldiers to militants is lower than in Swat, where about 20,000 soldiers fought 4,000 to 5,000 militants. In fact, it is estimated that of the approximately 30,000 troops currently engaged with some 11,000 Taliban in South Waziristan, there are only about 11,000 infantrymen, a ratio of one to one and about a fifth of the soldiers needed to wage effective counterinsurgency in this case.

3. The army faces 10,000-12,000 hard-core Taliban, including as many as 1,500 tough Uzbek fighters, smaller numbers of Arab al-Qaeda members and elements of Punjabi militant groups. They are better armed and more fierce than the militants the army faced in Swat and very adept at hit-and-run tactics.

4. For the time being, at least, the militants have retained the capacity to attack other areas of Pakistan. Since the offensive began, suicide bombers, traced to South Waziristan, have already killed over 100 people, wounded at least 250, including two suicide bomb blasts at the Islamic University in Islamabad, and assassinated a brigadier general and his driver, also in the capital. The army hopes that this terrorist capacity will become diluted as the insurgents are gradually cleared from their strongholds.

5. Despite early hopes that the Afghan Taliban will stay out of the fight, there are already signs that Taliban fighters are crossing over the border from Afghanistan into Pakistan. Because fighting now is evolving from seasonal to year-round, these fighters may ultimately augment the Mehsud forces well beyond the present numbers.

6. The terrain is arguably more difficult—rugged and semi-arid, with mountains and sparse forests cut by creek beds and steep ravines – landscape favouring the Mehsud tribesmen who have lived there for centuries. The further the army penetrates into the mountain strongholds dominated by the Mehsud, at heights of over 2000 meters, the more difficult and costly the fighting is likely to become.

7. Civilian casualties could undermine support. The Pakistani army may opt to use heavy artillery and longer-range weapons – which are less precise – in order to soften up militant bastions, as well as to hold down army casualties, resulting in more damage to the local population.

Both South and North Waziristan have been the focus of more than 40 drone attacks this year, and Pakistanis calculate nearly 700 civilian deaths from drone attacks in Pakistan since 2006. Further missile strikes by US drones on militant leadership could produce undesirable loss of civilian life. Anti-Americanism is already rife among the Pakistanis who blame the United States for the country’s current crisis. Civilian injuries and deaths would aggravate the problem of a Pakistani population openly critical of both the government and its alliance with the US. For now the US has pledged, at Pakistan’s request, to refrain from using unmanned drone aircraft to strike militants in the contested area.

8. A potential problem looming on the horizon as the fighting drags on is the harm to civilians and damage to their property and livelihood, resulting from internal displacement. Reports indicate that upwards of 250,000 civilians have already fled the fighting in South Waziristan. Initial predictions point to a smaller civilian exodus which is not expected to produce a humanitarian crisis on the scale of the approximately 2 million people displaced (many still homeless) after fleeing the fighting in the Swat valley last spring. But it is too early to affirm that hope.

The prospect of displacing half of South Waziristan’s population, and possibly mishandling assistance efforts for the refugee population – as was the case in Swat – is potentially a serious problem for the government. First, in the tribal regions, long-term strategies aimed at gaining the population’s support for the government in Islamabad might suffer setbacks. This is critical in light of the historic mistreatment and neglect of the tribal regions by the central government. Second, among the general population, the perception of a reckless disregard for the safety and well-being of Pakistani victims of this war could undermine public support for the operation, the anti-militant campaign and the Pakistani military in general. This risk is made more acute by the waning credibility of the central government, already seen as corrupt and incompetent. To assuage the plight of the refugees and reduce negative fallout for the government, Islamabad is now granting registered refugees (only 128,000 so far) a month’s supply of food and a monthly stipend worth about $50.

9. It is not clear that the agreement between the army and the two Wazir Taliban groups will hold, or is a model for future deals. In the first place, it was not an example of the army “flipping” these groups to the government’s side; rather it was the army taking advantage of a current split among the Waziristan Taliban. Nazir and Bahadar, encouraged by al-Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban leader Sirajuddin Haqqani, had allied with Baitullah Mehsud in February creating a triple alliance which unified the North and South Waziristan Taliban into a single grouping they called the United Mujahideen Council. Although the group fragmented in a bitter leadership struggle after a US drone attack killed Baitullah Mehsud in August, pressures remain to recreate the front and to resist efforts by the Pakistani army to divide them.

It is shaky deal in any case, resting on the shifting sands of FATA’s power politics and the mutual wariness and ambivalence of the army and two terrorist groups who have already engaged in bloody clashes. Precedents are not auspicious: recent army-Taliban accords have generally broken down or ended up favouring the Taliban, one way or another. Moreover, Washington is undoubtedly looking askance at an arrangement that fortifies a group with strong ties to al-Qaeda and the Haqqani Taliban faction, both of which Nato is fighting in Afghanistan. The agreement could well free these two Wazir groups to concentrate on Afghanistan. At this point, many observers predict this odd coupling of convenience between the army and their bloody-minded antagonists will be short-lived.

An uncertain future

The failure of this operation would have serious, perhaps disastrous, consequences for Pakistan and well beyond. It will certainly complicate the already strained alliance with the US. A battle lost in the heart of Pashtun Pakistan cannot help but reinforce Nato’s enemies in the Pashtun-dominated areas of south-eastern Afghanistan. It will strengthen al-Qaeda and send a chill into the region — especially the Central Asian republics contending with their own versions of jihadism. The blow to the credibility of the Pakistani government, in tandem with the fragile political situation in Afghanistan, could produce a seismic wave of instability for the near future.

A crushing of the TTP on the other hand, would mark a significant victory and provide Pakistan with some breathing space to regain stability, but it will likely not have a major impact on the fighting in Afghanistan. In fact, if the campaign drags on for any length of time, it could fuel the conflict across Pakistan’s borders. Thus, at this point the operation undertaken by the Pakistani military in South Waziristan looks like a high-risk, modest-gain gamble whose outcome may not be clear for some time.

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