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OPINION

South Waziristan: Blind Fury
KANCHAN LAKSHMAN

"We are prepared for a long war."
– Azam Tariq, Taliban spokesman, November 3, 2009

The Pakistan Army is reported to have wound up the first phase of Operation Rah-e-Nijat (Path to Salvation) this past weekend, having captured all major towns and villages in the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) stronghold of South Waziristan. According to the military’s Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), 458 militants have been killed (till November 7) since the offensive began on October 17, 2009. 42 soldiers, including officers, have lost their lives and 142 soldiers were wounded in the fighting, the ISPR chief, Major General Athar Abbas, said in an interview with Radio Pakistan on November 6. According to the military, the second phase of the operation will focus, among other aspects, on hamlets and smaller outposts controlled by the TTP.

Approximately 30,000 troops, assisted by military jets and helicopter gunships, have been deployed in the TTP stronghold and have moved in from three sides – "from Razmak in North Waziristan towards Makeen in South Waziristan, from Wana and Shakai towards Serwakai tehsil [revenue unit] on the way to Kaniguram, and from Jandola to Spinkai Raghzai, Kotki and Sararogha." On November 3, the Pakistan Army took control of Sararogha, the stronghold of the Hakeemullah Mehsud-led TTP. The capture of Sararogha adds to the significance of securing Kotkai, the home town of TTP chief Hakeemullah Mehsud and his trainer of suicide bombers, Qari Hussain, on October 24. Adding to its significance, Sararogha was where the TTP Shura (executive council) met to deliberate strategy. The political administration has claimed that Army troops were in control of major parts of Sararogha and Ladha, while they were moving to consolidate positions in Makeen town, described as the nerve centre of the Taliban in South Waziristan. The rapid pace with which the military has claimed capture of major towns and villages, including Sherwangi, Kotkai, Kaniguram and Sararogha, and locations such as Tarkona Narai, have fuelled much doubt and skepticism.

The truth is likely far from the spin Islamabad is sending out to the world. Local and official sources, The News reported on November 8, 2009, remarked that there was little or no resistance from the militants, as all the armed men had left the area well in advance, since the campaign had been well advertised before its commencement. At worst, there was some fighting in a few places. Crucially, not a single important TTP ‘commander’ or foreign militant has been killed or arrested, since the launch of operations on October 17. The death toll of militants claimed by the ISPR in its daily statements is pushing 500, but the bodies of the slain men haven’t been shown to the media, The News added. Irfan Burki and Daud Khattak have reported that the whereabouts of TTP leaders, including Hakeemullah Mehsud, Qari Hussain and Waliur Rahman aren’t known, and it is believed they have escaped to some new hideouts. Sources suggest that Waliur Rahman, in his capacity as the head of the TTP South Waziristan chapter, is still holed up somewhere in the Mehsud tribal territory. As in Swat, "where Taliban head Maulana Fazlullah is still untraceable, the situation has taken a familiar turn in South Waziristan as all the top commanders fled."

Current counter-insurgency operations in South Waziristan are, consequently, unlikely to yield desired results, given the experience in the FATA in the past and in Swat earlier in 2009, and can be expected only to disperse the militants into other areas across Pakistan. The neutralisation of the Taliban-al Qaeda combine is, moreover, far from being a desired objective of these operations. In fact, never has any militant group, be it the sectarian variant, the ones being used by Pakistan in its proxy war against India, or others like the Taliban and al Qaeda allies, been neutralized by the state.

Momentarily, these operations could relieve some pressure on adjacent geographical locations. For instance, there is, according to figures for October 2009, less pressure in the Bannu District of NWFP, located next to Sararogha. The eventual success of the operation in South Waziristan would also depend on the state’s capacity to prevent any further expansion of the conflict, especially the augmenting attacks in urban areas. For Operation Rah-e-Nijat to be strategically meaningful, the military will have to engage with the TTP and al Qaeda allies not only in South Waziristan but also in North Waziristan, the Khyber, Kurram, Orakzai, Bajaur and Mohmand Agencies, and elsewhere in FATA. In addition, Pakistan’s Armed Forces will have to fight the fleeing militants in the adjoining Swat Valley and Malakand Division of the NWFP, which is still to stabilize, despite the largely disastrous military operations in that region earlier in the year. The effectiveness of military operations in South Waziristan will be negligible if the Army allows the TTP cadre to disperse across Pakistan or flee across the Durand Line, to regroup on Afghan territory. All of this implies a commitment and concentration of troops that the Federal Government simply cannot currently secure, given the multiple insurgencies raging across the country.

While the operations in South Waziristan have already led to more than 500 fatalities, the whole of FATA continues to remain a conflict zone with augmenting casualties. 4,185 persons, including 3,318 militants and 582 civilians, have died so far in 2009 (till November 7), a substantial increase over the fatality figure for the whole of 2008, which stood at 3,067. The writ of the state, always fragile in FATA, has now vanished. Levels of violence have, in fact, risen continuously over the years.

Annual Fatalities in Terrorist Violence in FATA, 2005- 2009

Year

Civilians
SF Personnel
Militant
Total
Injured
Incidents

2009*

582
285
3318
4185
1432
3005

2008

1116
242
1709
3067
1315
1154

2007

424
243
1014
1681
NA
NA

2006

109
144
337
590
NA
248

2005

92
35
158
285
NA
165
Source: South Asia Terrorism Portal
* Data till November 7, 2009

Fatalities are bound to be much higher than the numbers available, and the categories are certainly suspect, since independent and open source reportage from FATA operates under severe restrictions.

The intensive strafing and limited ground operations that comprise Operation Rah-e-Nijat have, of course, led to some setbacks for the Taliban. The TTP chief Hakeemullah Mehsud has, however, urged his cadres to endure the military onslaught, warning them in an intercepted message obtained on November 5 that "cowards will go to hell". "Remember this is the commandment of God that once fighting starts with the enemy, you cannot leave the battlefield without permission from your commander, and don’t look for excuses to run away from the fighting," Hakeemullah told his fighters in a speech on November 3, broadcast over a wireless radio network. Of those, who do run away, he warned, "Such people will go to hell… We are in Jihad and we should not pay heed to the whispers of Satan. We should sacrifice our lives for Islam so that we can feel pride on the Day of Judgment."

There are obvious indications that the lack of resistance by the Taliban is tactical. TTP spokesman Azam Tariq declared, on November 3, "We are prepared for a long war. The areas we are withdrawing from, and the ones the Army is claiming to have won, are being vacated by us as part of a strategy. The strategy is to lure the army into a trap, and then fight a long war."

Rather than countering the troops, TTP cadres have withdrawn into safe havens in the mountainous terrain and the urban expanse. Sources indicate that key TTP leaders have re-located to other areas in FATA, to Balochistan, to Karachi, to south Punjab and other locations across Pakistan, where there is currently less pressure from the security agencies. Officials at the Army’s General Headquarters (GHQ) in Rawalpindi are reportedly surprised that the militants left the area so easily. The Army is, of course, aware that the fleeing militants are retreating to other locations, including the neighbouring Orakzai, Kurram, Khyber and North Waziristan agencies, to survive, regroup and prepare future attacks.

While the military establishment and Interior Ministry had been hyping the military operations in South Waziristan months before their actual launch, entirely neutralizing any element of surprise, two factors may have eventually forced GHQ to finally hit out. The recent surge of terrorist violence in urban areas, including the attack on GHQ itself, at Rawalpindi, as well as on state installations in Lahore, Islamabad, Peshawar and Kohat, which killed more than 200 people, force the Army’s hand to launch an offensive in South Waziristan. In addition, the approaching winter also "prompted the military to begin the onslaught and try to finish it or achieve most of its objectives before the snow starts falling in the mountains of Makeen, Ladha, Kaniguram, Badar, Srarogha, Kotki and other militant strongholds."

The military action has, so far, only targeted the parts of South Waziristan which are dominated by the Mehsud tribe. A report from Dera Ismail Khan on October 20 noted that the Pakistan Army had struck deals to keep two powerful tribal chiefs — Mulla Nazir and Hafiz Gul Bahadur — from joining the battle against the Government. Under the terms agreed upon about three weeks earlier, Mulla Nazir and Hafiz Gul Bahadur will stay out of the current fight in parts of South Waziristan and will also allow the Army to "move through their own lands unimpeded, giving the military additional fronts from which to attack the Taliban. In exchange, the Army will ease patrols and bombings in the lands controlled by the two warlords, two Pakistani intelligence officials based in the region said."

The battle for South Waziristan and, if possible, to clear the area of the Taliban-al Qaeda presence, is going to be long and certainly a lot more difficult and complicated than the military campaign in Swat. Past attempts to establish Islamabad’s writ in the region have proven disastrous. For the record, there have been three failed military operations against the Taliban in the region between 2005 to 2008. On at least one occasion, the military’s failure to defeat the then Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud resulted in the capture of around 300 soldiers by the Taliban, and forced the Government and the military to make peace deals with him in February 2005.

Much is at stake for Pakistan in the fight against the TTP, but there is nothing about Islamabad’s strategy and, more importantly, intent, that allows for even a modicum of optimism.

The writer is a Research Fellow at Institute for Conflict Management, New Delhi, India.


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