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Pakistani Taliban opt for strategic retreat in Waziristan

Thursday 19 November 2009

LAHORE: One month down the road since the Pakistan Army launched a massive military operation against the al-Qaeda and Taliban-linked militants in the trouble stricken Waziristan region bordering Afghanistan, the troops have captured almost 90 per cent territory including all major towns and villages which were once the stronghold of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) - an umbrella organization of more than a dozen militant groups which have been blamed for a series of suicide attacks across Pakistan since 2007.

Waziristan is a mountainous region in north-west Pakistan, bordering Afghanistan. It is part of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), a semi-autonomous region where the central government exercises limited control through a political agent. For administrative purposes it is divided into two agencies - North Waziristan and South Waziristan. Winters are harsh, making large tracts of the already inhospitable terrain almost inaccessible. For the last couple of years, South Waziristan and the surrounding region have been described by senior US intelligence and government officials as the most dangerous place on earth. Many analysts believe the area could harbour some of the world’s most wanted men - including al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden. It was the home of former Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud, who was killed in a suspected US drone strike in August 2009. It is also home to his successor, the current Pakistani Taliban leader, Hakimullah Mehsud. North and South Waziristan form a lethal militant belt from where insurgents have launched attacks across north-west Pakistan as well as into parts of eastern Afghanistan. South Waziristan is considered to be the first significant sanctuary for Islamic militants outside Afghanistan since 9/11 and has numerous training camps for suicide bombers.

With the launching of the Operation Rah-e-Nijat (Path to Salvation), over 30,000 Pakistani troops, being backed by military jets and helicopter gunships, had been deployed in the TTP stronghold which 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. The rapid pace speed at which the Pakistani troops have been able to seize major towns and villages of South Waziristan and thus securing main supply routes in the embattled tribal region has taken many an analyst by surprise. While the government moves in right earnest to restore its writ in the territory, there are speculations and questions galore as to what happened to the almost legendary and much-hyped Taliban resistance in the area. Many military strategists say the swift gains by the Pakistani troops in South Waziristan might not ensure eradication of terror networks in the region because the Taliban themselves have declared that they have actually withdrawn from the area as a strategic retreat to save their men and ammunition and continue to fight from remote valleys and neighbouring tribal districts.

Therefore, there are those in the diplomatic circles of Islamabad who say the Pakistani military leadership would soon realize that the troops in South Waziristan are actually chasing shadows because the TTP militants have simply melted into the vastness of the inhospitable surrounding territory. It appears that the militants in Waziristan, headed by the Pakistani Taliban - the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan - are bent on a long-term insurgency against the security apparatus. Although tough resistance was expected from up to 10,000 well-trained Taliban guerrilla fighters from the mainly ethnic Pashtun Mehsud tribe of South Waziristan, the military operation has been relatively proved easy so far, to the surprise of many. Fighting small rearguard actions, the Taliban deserted their bunkers and posts in the major towns, leaving space for the troops to occupy. An intelligence official overseeing the spying operations in Waziristan has been recently quoted as saying that many groups of Taliban were spotted moving to Shawal, a remote and inaccessible area near the Afghan border. Dense forests and ravines make the Shwal valley in North Waziristan a perfect terrain for a lethal guerrilla war. “Our troops will not enter the area, at least for now. It is a very difficult area”, the intelligence official was further quoted as saying.

Other Taliban fighters have slipped away into at least four other tribal districts - Orakzai, Mohmand, Bajaur and Kurram - where the TTP controls large swaths of territory. “The militants started to shift their kin and cattle, and ammunition to other tribal districts after the government announced an operation in South Waziristan in May”, said the intelligence official on condition of anonymity. However, according to Javed Hussain, the former commander of Pakistan’s elite commando force – Special Services Group (SSG), the force involved in the offensive is too small to block the secondary routes and traditional smuggling channels used by the Taliban to flee. The troops have so far focused on securing the main town along the three main roads and the bases lost to the Taliban in previous encounters during their three-pronged operation, he added. And the Pakistani government maintains that forcing the Taliban militants to flee has been a success, pointing out the rebels have lost dozens of training facilities, including one to groom suicide bombers. But intensified suicide bombings and raids on civilian and sensitive military installations across the country in recent weeks definitely tell a different story. Security experts in Islamabad are of the view that the Taliban militants’ ability to hit at will has not been minimized - over 300 people killed in such attacks in October 2009 bear testimony to this.

Azam Tariq, a Taliban spokesman, has already vowed to orchestrate a long guerrilla war by early next year, after an end to the snowfall that blocks the important passes, making the movement across the mountainous South Waziristan region of around 6,620 square kilometers very difficult. Analysts, therefore, warn that the Taliban strategy could have dangerous consequences for the Pakistani forces as the militants might regroup and return to South Waziristan with more force and make the troops continually bleed with deadly ambushes, raids and roadside bombings. The Taliban circles say the TTP militants are applying the same strategy which they were trained to use by the Pakistani security forces against the Indian army in Jammu & Kashmir during the 1990s. That included a pattern of not confronting a regular army once it was mobilized; rather, the militants dodged it and opened a new front far from the point of the army’s concentration. And much the same has happened in Pakistan over the past month, with a string of deadly suicide bomb attacks in various parts of the country, including in Peshawar, the capital of North-West Frontier Province (NWFP).

Therefore, it is largely believed that the battle for South Waziristan, which has already been described as the mother of all battles by the Pakistani media, is going to be long and certainly a lot more difficult and complicated than the Pakistani military campaign in the trouble-stricken Swat valley of the North West Frontier Province (NWFP). 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 and 2008. On at least one occasion, the Pakistani military’s failure to defeat the then Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud eventually resulted in the capture of around 300 soldiers by the Taliban, and forced the Musharraf regime to make peace deals with him in February 2005. In the words of Dr Maleeha Lodhi, a former Pakistani ambassador to Washingto and London, the outcome of the military operation in South Waziristan may well determine the fate not just of the TTP but of other militants who have used the Mehsud stronghold to build a deadly capacity to challenge the Pakistani state and strike at will against its symbols and manifestations. The stakes could not be higher. The campaign will not by itself eliminate the militant threat. But it could deliver a decisive blow to the Taliban militants’ ability to control the South Waziristan region and use it to challenge the writ of the Pakistani state.


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