A new battle begins in Pakistan
By Syed Saleem Shahzad
ISLAMABAD - Despite serious reservations, Pakistan's military at the weekend
began an all-out offensive against the Pakistani Taliban and al-Qaeda in the
tribal areas on the border with Afghanistan.
The deployment of about 30,000 troops in South Waziristan, backed by the air
force, shifts the main theater of the South Asian battlefield from Afghanistan
That Pakistan has become a focal point was underscored on Sunday when six
Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps commanders were killed, as well as 37 other
people, in an attack in Iran's restive Sistan-Balochistan province.
Iranian state television said the Foreign Ministry summoned a senior Pakistani
diplomat in Tehran, saying there was evidence
"the perpetrators of this attack came to Iran from Pakistan". The Pakistani
government was asked not to delay "in the apprehension of the main elements in
this terrorist attack".
The attack has been blamed on the group Jundallah, which is believed to operate
from Pakistan's Balochistan province and which recently established a link with
al-Qaeda. (See Al-Qaeda
seeks a new alliance Asia Times Online, May 21, 2009.)
On Monday, clashes between the Pakistan military and the militants continued
for the third day in South Waziristan. Islamabad says that 60 militants have
been killed, with 11 soldiers dead.
The army had serious reservations about sending ground troops into South
Waziristan, firstly for fear of a strong militant backlash in other parts of
the country and secondly because there is no guarantee of success. However,
under pressure from the United States, and with the carrot of US$1.5 billion a
year for the next fives years in additional non-military aid, Pakistan's
political government has bitten the bullet. The timing might have been
influenced by a string of militant attacks in the country over the past few
The offensive is concentrated in the areas of the Mehsud tribe in South
Waziristan, which is also the headquarters of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan
In preparation for the assault, the army made ceasefire deals with several
influential Taliban warlords who run large networks against coalition troops in
Afghanistan. They include Mullah Nazir, the chief of the Taliban in Wana, South
Waziristan, who operates the largest Taliban network in the Afghan province of
Paktika. Mullah Nazir is neutral in this Pakistani conflict and agreed to allow
passage to the army to enter Mehsud territory.
In North Waziristan, two top Taliban commanders, Hafiz Gul Bahadur and Moulvi
Sadiq Noor, also agreed to remain neutral. They are members of the Shura of the
Mujahideen and a main component of the Taliban's insurgency in the Afghan
province of Khost.
This leaves a few thousand Mehsud tribal fighters along with their Uzbek and
Punjabi militant allies to fight against the military. Thousands of civilians
have fled the area.
However, Hakimullah Mehsud of the TTP, according to Asia Times Online contacts,
has apparently adopted a strategy that will not expend too many resources on
protecting the Mehsud area. Instead, he aims to spread chaos by attacking
security personnel in the cities. Hakimullah was the architect of successful
attacks on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's supply lines in the Khyber
Agency, which began in 2007.
The same contacts say that when thousands of people left South Waziristan last
week under the military's directives, a majority of the militants melted away
to the Shawal region, situated at the crossroads of South Waziristan,
Afghanistan and North Waziristan, besides going to Pakistani cities.
A very limited force is entrenched in the Mehsud tribal area, and by all
accounts it is putting up fierce resistance.
In the cities, the TTP will be assisted by Punjabis, who will aim to replicate
the audacious and well-planned attack on the Pakistani military headquarters in
Rawalpindi on October 10.
This attack and subsequent siege in which a number of hostages were held
exposed loopholes in the security mechanisms of the armed forces as well as the
deep penetration of militants in the security forces.
A transcript of the militants' calls, intercepted by the security forces and
read by Asia Times Online, shows that the militants had noticed a damaged wall
at General Headquarters Rawalpindi. They therefore engaged security personnel
at the main gate, while at the same time sending about 10 men through the
breach in the wall. These militants were given support by insiders.
The attackers made directly for the barracks of Military Intelligence and took
several senior officials hostage, including the director general of Military
Intelligence. They then presented a list of demands. According to some reports
which have not been authenticated by independent sources, six prisoners were
released on the militants' demands before the hostages were released after a
commando operation on October 11.
The heat is on Pakistan
Washington has been keen to extend the war into Pakistan since early 2008. To
reflect this, this year it coined "AfPak", and even appointed a special
representative, Richard Holbrooke, to handle this portfolio. The focus in
Pakistan was to be the militant bases in the tribal areas which feed directly
into the insurgency across the border.
The aim was to create breathing space for coalition troops in Afghanistan and
eventually pave the way for an honorable exit strategy after initiating talks
with sections of the Taliban.
This year, the US also stepped up its presence in Pakistan by acquiring new
bases and the Americans developed a joint intelligence mechanism with Pakistan
to hit al-Qaeda and Taliban targets in Pakistan with Predator drones. These
missile attacks have proved particularly successful in taking out key targets,
including Baitullah Mehsud, the TTP leader.
The US also coordinated ground military operations such as Lion Heart, which
saw coalition troops on the Afghan side working with Pakistani troops on the
other side to squeeze militants. (Asia Times Online documented this last year -
see US forces the
terror issue with Pakistan September 16, 2008.)
There are parallels in what the US is doing with Pakistan to what happened
during the Vietnam War, when that war was extended into Laos and Cambodia.
Beyond the South Waziristan operation
Washington is watching developments in Waziristan with keen interest. Both
General Stanley A McChrystal, the top US general in Afghanistan, and US Central
Command chief, General David Petraeus, are currently in Pakistan.
They will be pleased that Pakistan has committed its biggest-ever force for
such an operation - 30,000 troops with another 30,000 in reserve. Yet the
chances of a decisive military victory remain remote.
Given the nature of the opposition and the tough territory, there is a high
probability of extensive casualties in the army, with resultant desertions and
dissent. There is also no guarantee that if the conflict drags on, the warlords
with whom ceasefires have been agreed will not go back on their deals.
At the same time, there are signals that the Taliban in the Swat area in
North-West Frontier Province are regrouping after being pushed back by the army
this year. It is likely that by the time the snow chokes major supply routes,
the Taliban will have seized all lost ground in the Swat Valley.
By marching into South Waziristan, the military has taken something of a gamble
as it is highly unlikely to eliminate the militant threat. Indeed, the past
seven or so years have shown that after any operation against militants, the
militants have always gained from the situation. By the same token, the
militants don't have the capacity to permanently control ground beyond their
areas in South Waziristan and North Waziristan.
In this situation, in which the militants and the military can't defeat one
another, and if the fighting continues, a political crisis could be provoked.
This would weaken the state of Pakistan and its institutions.
Alternatively, the authorities could accept the fact that Pakistan is a tribal
society which always operates through bargains and deals, and move quickly to
contain this conflict.
Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can
be reached at[email protected]