Pakistan Army is all set to launch a major military offensive on South Waziristan, which has become the hub of terrorism being waged by Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) across the country in recent years—the devastating suicide bombing in Peshawar on October 9 and the terrorist attack on the Army General Headquarters in Rawalpindi on October 10 constitute its latest, and, most probably, not the last, expression. South Waziristan is currently completely encircled, as all routes leading to it from the rest of the Federally-Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), including those bordering Afghanistan, are being blocked by the security forces.
The siege of South Waziristan is part of the military strategy to choke off terrorist-insurgent forces in their stronghold. Two Army divisions, consisting of 28,000 troops, are ready to take part in the ground offensive code-named Operation Rah-e-Nijat, which will have aerial support from air force jets and army helicopters. The air strikes on strategic targets in the area are already under way. One such strike on October 6 reportedly killed six Taliban in Makeen and Nawaz Kot areas of South Waziristan.
Since both President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani have resolved to wage a decisive battle in South Waziristan, and the army has already made the required arrangements, it is now only a matter of time when Pakistan’s most important offensive against Taliban and their al-Qaeda and Uzbek allies begins in the region.
It is a battle that the army has to win at all cost in the wake of growing terrorist challenge from TTP. It has taken several years for South Waziristan to become a safe haven for TTP and foreign terrorists, particularly up to 1,000 Uzbek militiamen belonging to al-Qaeda-linked Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). Military sources put the number of hardcore Taliban fighters up to 5,000. The actual number may be higher. By all accounts, it will be the toughest battle fought by the army since its deployment in FATA in late 2003.
It took the army to clear Swat and adjoining areas only few months after the start of its Swat offensive in late April. How long will it take to recover South Waziristan from TTP and IMU insurgent-terrorists? What potential risks does Operation Rah-e-Nijat confront? How far the country’s recent successes in counter-terrorism can help the army in realizing its operational objectives? Of course, answers to all of these crucial questions will be available only when the final showdown in South Waziristan actually begins and evolves over time.
However, at this stage, a preliminary assessment about its possible outcome can, indeed, be made, especially given the fact that Pakistan army already has a great counter-insurgency success in Swat in its hands, its commanders seem to be absolutely clear about the gravity of the terrorist target in South Waziristan and, perhaps, most importantly, the army’s Operation Rah-e-Nijat, just like its predecessor in Swat codenamed Operation Rah-e-Rast, enjoys the full support of the civilian government, mainstream political opposition and public opinion of the country.
As for the justification for Operation Rah-e-Nijat, there cannot be two opinions about the fact that it is from South Waziristan that TTP renders support to other pro-Taliban terrorist groups operating from the nearby Khyber, Bajur, Orakzai and Mohmand agencies in FATA. As army spokesman Gen Athar Abbas said on October 6, “The root of the terror is in South Waziristan where this group is present. It is a must to root out this terror and curse…If we do not launch this operation, then terrorism will become strong and would spread in other areas.”
After the death of Baitullah Mehsud in a US drone attack on August 5, TTP in South Waziristan is being led by Waliur Rehman and Qari Hussain, who runs a suicide training camp in KotKai area of the region. In the last one year, some 677 people have become a victim of 252 bombings, including 48 suicide attacks. Almost all the recent suicide bombings, including in Bannu, Kohat and Peshawar, were directed by TTP leadership in South Waziristan. The responsibility for the October 10 terrorist attack on GHQ is also claimed by a TTP group linked to al-Qaeda.
Previous terrorist attacks linked to TTP headquarters in South Waziristan include the September 2008 Marriott attack in Islamabad, the attack on a Police Academy in Lahore in March and the bombing of Pearl Continental Hotel in Peshawar in June. In addition, since 2005, TTP has killed 28 prominent tribal Maliks in FATA.
Apart from the attack on GHQ and the suicide bombing in Peshawar, another recent expression of the terrorist campaign being waged by TTP from South Waziristan occurred on October 5, when five Pakistanis and one Iraqi civilian were killed in a Taliban suicide attack at the World Food Programme (WFP) headquarters in Islamabad. The attack has caused temporary lull in the WFP activity for helping the displaced persons in the Frontier and tribal regions. While claiming responsibility for this attack, Taliban spokesman Azam Tariq threatened, “We will send more bombers for such attacks…The UN and other foreign [aid groups] are not working in the interest of Muslims. We are watching their activities. They are infidels.”
According to army sources, in the last three months, Taliban insurgents have intensified attacks against security forces deployed in South and North Waziristan agencies, including five suicide missions in Razmak area, kidnapping of 15 security personnel, killing three of them, as well as over 300 rocket attacks and 78 improvised explosive device (IED) attacks. The security forces deployed in Razmak are daily bracing rocket attacks from Taliban stronghold in Makeen, which have killed nine soldiers and injured over 60 security personnel and civilians in the area in the last week of September and the first week of October alone. Besides Razmak, army check posts located at Siplatai Fort, Jandola Fort, Tanai Fort, Tiarza, Gomal Zam Kabutar and Saidullah are a frequent target of Taliban rocket attacks from Makeen.
Given all of the above, a final showdown against Taliban and their al-Qaeda Uzbek allies in South Waziristan is an absolute necessity at present, and it will have all the moral and legal justification on the part of Pakistan army and civilian government.
There is no doubt that the country’s security forces are faced with a far stronger enemy in South Waziristan than one they confronted and overcame in Swat—in the shape of 5,000 or more Taliban fighters and up to 1,000 Uzbek militiamen, both of whom are being perceived by the army as hardcore, battle-hardened terrorists laced with latest weaponry. Baitulah may not be around to direct TTP terrorists, but the organization’s second-tier leaders are certainly there to avenge the death of its top leader from Pakistan army, whom they perceive to be a surrogate of the US and NATO forces combating the Taliban-led insurgency in Afghanistan. In a recent meeting in Mirali, TTP leaders are believed to have pledged to conduct terrorism across Pakistan as a revenge for Baitullah’s killing in a US drone attack two months ago.
Two divisions of troops backed by air force and army helicopters may be sufficient to inflict considerable damage on Taliban and Uzbek targets if Operation Rah-e-Nijat is meant to be only a surgical one. But if the advancing army plans to stay in the Mehsud tribal region, historically known for offering tough resistance, more troops and air support might be needed over time.
As compared to South Waziristan, in Swat, defeating Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Muhammadi (TNSM) forces led by Fazlullah, holding on to the captured territory, and paving the way for the return of internally-displaced people until present were relatively easier targets to achieve. Apart from the numerically stronger insurgent-terrorist forces, with much more militant prowess and terrorist experience, the far more difficult terrain of South Waziristan as compared to Swat will be a potentially hostile factor in the army’s counter-insurgency operation in the region.
However, two divisions of troops will sufficient to start the operation. And, obviously, if the need arose during the course of the operation, the army will have no option but to increase the number of its troops. The only question it will have to address when such moment arises is how many troops to redeploy there, especially from positions along the country’s border with India.
As the codename Operation Rah-e-Nijat itself indicates, the army perceives it to be the last battle against Taliban in the region, whose aim will be to eliminate the local and foreign terrorist infrastructure from South Waziristan. The argument that the army may already be overstretched does not seem valid here, as the military offensive in South Waziristan has been overdue since June.
On June 15, NWFP Governor Owais Ghani had announced the government’s decision to launch a “comprehensive and decisive operation” in the area to “eliminate Baitullah Mehsud and dismantle his network.” Since the success in Swat operation had not been fully achieved then, the army– in consultation with the government–decided to delay this operation. If the political decision to undertake it was already made months ago, then it can be argued that the army must have considered all possible options for its successful culmination, keeping in view all the potential security hazards involved in its undertaking.
As for now, Operation Rah-e-Nijat in South Waziristan seems to have as bright a chance of success as Operation Rah-e-Rast in Swat has eventually proven. Apart from previously pointed positive factors such as support from the civilian leadership, the country’s mainstream political parties and its majority public opinion, there are a number of other reasons that enhance the army’s counter-insurgency ability in South Waziristan.
First, after Baitullah’s death, TTP must be demoralized. New TTP leader Hakimullah Mehsud lacks the charisma that Baitullah enjoyed among his Taliban followers. Since Baitullah’s death, there have been numerous reports about internal divisions within the TTP ranks. For instance, soon after Baitullah's death, TTP deputy leader and commander in Bajaur Maulvi Faqir Muhammad declared himself as the new organizational chief to preempt its takeover by Baitullah's cousins Hakimullah Mehsud or Waliur Rehman. The 'Ithad Taliban' under his leadership, thus, currently challenges the Hakimulah-led main faction of the TTP. Moreover, Taliban leaders like Maulvi Nazir and Gul Bahadur are believed to have been cultivated by the army to remain neutral when the final showdown against TTP begins in South Waziristan begins in the coming days.
Second, unlike TTP, the army will enter the battle with, as stated before, a grand counter-insurgency success in Swat, which has proven to be a great morale booster for the troops. Just the other day, they were dancing along local Swatis in Kabal area of Malakand Division, where TNSM had offered perhaps the most severe resistance to them. On October 5, the local people in Mingora and in its suburbs took a sigh of relief when the curfew was finally lifted from the area. The entire TNSM leadership, except Fazalullah, is either dead or captured alive. The civilian setup in Swat stands restored, and the local people have returned to their homes and hearths pledging never to let the terrorists hijack their lives again.
Third, unlike Swat, South Waziristan has faced consistent US drone strikes. Even though the army seems to be in no mood for seeking American intelligence and operational assistance for Rah-e-Nijat, the continuation of such attacks carefully calibrated to hit Taliban and Uzbek targets in the region will constitute an indirect foreign help for the army, since the enemy in this case happens to be common.
Fourth, perhaps the most important factor in any counter-insurgency campaign is whether it enjoys support from the local population. Already some 80,000 residents of South Waziristan have left the region, and they are being accommodated mostly in Dera Ismael Khan. Since the region had become a virtual black hole even for the security forces, it is not possible to assess how people will react when the security operation begins. However, from what has been reported so far, the people of the area, some 300,000 in total, had, indeed, become a hostage of the reign of terror perpetrated by TTP and IMU militants. Many of them were slaughtered by Taliban and Uzbeks on suspicion of being agents of the security forces.
In recent years, there have been many instances of local tribesmen resisting Taliban and fighting Uzbeks. In 2007, Taliban forces led by Maulvi Nazir, for instances, fought against Uzbeks. As early as July this year, Taliban had reportedly captured a hospital-cum-madrassa in a village called Khesarai, a move disliked by local tribesmen. During the course of the operation, the army can, therefore, look forward to local intelligence help, as the fear of Taliban and Uzbeks will disappear as soon as the advancing troops with air support start to break their backs in their own stronghold.
In retrospect, therefore, it can be argued that the opportunity that Pakistan army currently has to decimate the terrorist infrastructure of Taliban and their Uzbek allies in South Waziristan was never there before, and such an opportunity might never come again. The weeks-long siege of South Waziristan may have already demoralized the enemy enough, so that when the actual battle begins, the myth of Taliban and Uzbek invincibility in the region may not take that long to get exposed.
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