Waziristan: New battleground in war against terror

The myth of the invincibility of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in its South Waziristan stronghold has been busted by the Pakistan army. However, Operation Rah-e-Nijat (path to salvation or deliverance), launched in mid-October 2009 in South Waziristan, has yielded only limited success. The army and the paramilitary forces are also carrying out an operation against militants in the Khyber, Orakzai and Kurram tribal regions. 

The centre of gravity of the TTP’s sway over South Waziristan lies along the triangular hub of Makeen, Ladha-Kaniguram and Sararogha. These frontier townships were surrounded by the Pakistan army but proved hard to capture for almost two months. Prime Minister Gilani announced on December 13, 2009, that South Waziristan had been cleared but operations would continue. 

Most of the TTP cadres have melted away into the mountains to fight another day. Hakimullah Mehsud and other TTP commanders are reported to have sought sanctuary in North Waziristan and Orakzai. 

The Pakistan army had begun the offensive operations in South Waziristan after several months of preparation on October 17, 2009. Approximately 30,000 troops of 7 and 9 Infantry Divisions of 11 Corps, based at Peshawar, were employed for the operation. They were provided ancillary support by about 5,000 personnel of the Frontier Corps, a para-military border guarding force. 

Conventional military operations with massive artillery and air support were launched from three directions simultaneously, with 7 Infantry Division moving south from Razmak and 9 Infantry Division moving along two axes — north-west from Jandola and north-east from Wana and Shakai.
In the classical mountain warfare fashion, the advancing columns first secured the hills overlooking the towns located in the valleys and then surrounded the townships. 

Initially, the Taliban fighters — numbering about 10,000 — offered stiff resistance and there was fierce fighting along all three avenues of advance. In fact, the Taliban even recaptured Kotkai from the Pakistan army, but failed to hold on to the town for long. 

Subsequently, they retreated to the hills and adopted guerrilla tactics, launching hit-and-run raids when they could. They also resorted to the extensive use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) to blow up army vehicles and cause casualties. 
The army claims to have killed about 500 Taliban fighters and admits to having lost 50 soldiers. The Taliban says that only 11 of its fighters have been killed and claims to have inflicted ‘scores’ of casualties on the army. 

As media access has been denied by the army, the rival claims cannot be verified. About 3,30,000 Pushtun civilians have joined the swelling ranks of internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Pakistan. 

The US and NATO/ISAF forces have been proactively engaged in sealing the border and launching supporting missile strikes from drones against suspected TTP hideouts. In order to avoid having to fight the other militant groups that are active in the area, the Pakistan army has apparently done a deal with them.
These groups are led by Mullah Nazir, Jalaluddin Haqqani and Hafiz Gul Bahadur and together include 30,000 fighters. Another 500 to 5,000 foreign fighters — mostly from the al-Qaeda backed Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan — are waiting in the wings to see which way the fight will turn. They might well join the scrap and spoil the party. 

This is not the first time that the Pakistan army has launched military operations in South Waziristan. In 2004, the Pakistan army offensive had been beaten back with heavy casualties. In 2008, the army hastily entered into a peace agreement with the Taliban as it was ill-prepared to conduct operations effectively. 

Even now the Pakistan army was extremely reluctant to launch active offensive operations against the TTP for fear of alienating the Pushtuns who comprise approximately 25 per cent of the army, but the recent attacks in Punjab — including on the General HQ at Rawalpindi — and intense US pressure forced it to act decisively. 

Pakistan’s Muslim troops detest the idea of fighting fellow Muslims who they were told were ‘strategic assets’ till recently in what is seen as the US war against Muslims. In previous years there were many cases of desertion and refusal to obey orders and if the fighting in South Waziristan continues much longer, cases of insubordination are likely to be repeated in large numbers. 

Creeping Talibanisation is a threat that is common to all countries in the Indian subcontinent. The Taliban and al-Qaeda affiliates have already reached across the Indus river and have begun to consolidate their bases around Bahawalpur in southern Punjab. 

If the spread of radical extremism remains unchecked, there is no way it can be prevented from creeping across the Radcliff Line into northern India. Hence, the Pakistan army’s fight against the Taliban is in many ways India’s war as well and is worthy of India’s support. 

The difficulty in offering support is that some perverted elements in Pakistan’s establishment have chosen to accuse India of supporting the TTP. Nothing could be more ridiculous. Would India support a virulent radical organisation that it considers a long-term threat? And, would the TTP, that had offered to fight shoulder-to-shoulder with the Pakistan army against India in case there was a war following the Mumbai terror attacks, accept Indian support? 

It will soon snow on the hill ranges of South Waziristan, making further military operations difficult. It will also be a challenge for the Pakistan army to hold on tenaciously to the areas that it has liberated as the TTP fighters will be able to exploit the terrain to launch raids into army encampments at a point and time of their choosing. The army will also need to soon decide whether to carry the fight further into North Waziristan or to hold back and launch a spring offensive. 

Alternatively, the army might claim that all its objectives have been achieved, enter into a cease-fire agreement with the so-called ‘good Taliban’ and gradually hand the area back to the Mehsud tribes to run on their own — after extracting a promise that the TTP will not be allowed to return. 

In either case, the prognosis looks grim and the Af-Pak region is in for a long period of instability. The US and its NATO/ ISAF allies and the regional powers — the Central Asian Republics, China, India, Iran and Russia — must work together cooperatively for long-term peace and stability in the Af-Pak region — now the world’s most dangerous flashpoint. 

The writer is the Director, Centre for Land Warfare Studies, New Delhi.