Day 3 of the Army’s much-anticipated ground offensive in South Waziristan was underway Monday, and Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas met with reporters to update them on the operation’s progress. According to news agencies, the Pakistan Army is “ahead of schedule” by 36 hours, advancing up to 15 kilometers (9 miles) into the mountainous area. In the last 24 hours, Abbas added, forces have “enveloped” Kotkai, the town of Taliban commander Qari Hussain, while guerrillas have “taken positions on mountains.” According to the military spokesman, 78 militants and nine soldiers have been killed since the offensive launched Saturday. The spokesman from the Taliban’s camp, not surprisingly, offered contradictory numbers, countering that militants have inflicted “heavy casualties” on government troops. Given that there is no way to verify either statements [reporters are barred from South Waziristan], I wanted to provide a breakdown of what we do know, [or at least what we know better]:
1. The Rah-e-Nijat offensive ["Path to Salvation"] has been a long time coming. In June 2009, the military announced this new offensive into South Waziristan, but only unleashed artillery and air strikes on the area, weakening the militant stronghold but certainly not defeating it. There were several reasons for this, but I shall highlight one of the main ones. In June, a spokesman from Gul Bahadur‘s militant group in North Waziristan [a rival of Mehsud's Taliban] announced they were scrapping their peace deal “because of U.S. drone strikes in the region.” The Taliban faction had initially agreed to sit on the sidelines during the military’s South Waziristan offensive, but the disintegration of the deal complicated the Army’s chance at success in the region. As the BBC’s Syed Shoaib Hasan noted back in July, “no one has ever defeated a combined insurgency in the Waziristan area.”
However, according to news agencies, the army has once again “come to an understanding” with Bahadur’s group as well as the Taliban faction of Maulvi Nasir to keep them from fighting against the government during the offensive. According to the Associated Press, not only do the groups agree to not join the Mehsud Taliban’s forces, “They will also allow the army to move through their own lands unimpeded, giving the military additional fronts from which to attack the Taliban.” The news agency added, “The agreements underscore Pakistan’s past practice of targeting only militant groups that attack the government or its forces inside Pakistan.” The issue of U.S. and NATO troops across the border is therefore a different matter entirely, and will probably mean the current offensive will have little to no impact on the U.S. war in Afghanistan. Moreover, while the Army is terming this as no more than an “understanding,” it will be interesting to see how this loose alliance will pan out in the long-term. Because the Army must break up the enemy, the deal is tactically necessary in the short-term, but may be strategically problematic later on.
2. Who is the Army fighting in the offensive? We have just established who the military is not fighting in this operation. In Rah-e-Nijat, being termed “the mother of all battles,” the Army is seeking to destroy the Taliban faction of the late Baitullah Mehsud, who was killed in a drone strike in August and succeeded by Hakimullah Mehsud. The militants are said to number between 5,000 – 15,000.
This number includes “some hundred” to 2,000 pissed off Uzbek fighters. According to Dawn, “The reported death of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) leader Tahir Yuldashev in a drone attack in South Waziristan in August was a big blow to the violent foreign militant group that was waging a fierce campaign against Pakistan and its state agencies.” The Uzbek militants and other foreign fighters will reportedly “provide some stiff resistance,” mainly because they “have few places they can escape to,” noted a Dawn editorial.
The new Mehsud [who I dubbed Mehsud 2.0 in this post] recently vowed to launch a wave of attacks in Pakistan’s main cities, a threat we saw come to life last week. The breadth and reach of the recent violence, though, means the Mehsud Taliban has alliances with militant groups in other parts of the country, particularly in Punjab, [i.e., the Lashkar-e-Jhanghvi and the Jaish-e-Muhammad]. Therefore, although the military is targeting the Mehsud stronghold in South Waziristan, it is unlikely attacks in major cities will stop, unless the government plans to target these organizations as well. [This point was illustrated Tuesday, when suicide bombers struck Islamabad's International Islamic University.]
3. The Army’s sent 28,000 additional troops to South Waziristan. That’s good right? On paper, sure. Pakistan’s forces against roughly 10,000 militants is a ratio of 3:1. However, this isn’t your run-of-the-mill conventional warfare. This is counterinsurgency. According to a defense analyst who spoke to NPR Monday, the number of troops are far “too low,” and such numbers “will force them into guerrilla warfare that could last for years.” Over at the Long War Journal, Bill Roggio cited a study done by Sameer Lalwani at the New America Foundation, who noted, “Between 370,000 and 430,000 more troops would be needed in the FATA and the NWFP region to meet the minimum force-to-population ratios prescribed by counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine, much higher than current Pakistani deployments of 150,000 [overall in the region].” This is in part due to the “demographic and topographic terrain” of the region which are ideal for protracted insurgency and therefore call for much “higher than average force ratios and far more military assets than Pakistan possesses.”
With winter fast-approaching, time is not on the Army’s side, though Newsline‘s Nadir Hassan conceded, “the harsh conditions may be to the army’s benefit. For over two decades, until a ceasefire was negotiated in 2003, Pakistan’s troops had been fighting the Indians to a standstill in Siachen. The topography and weather of Siachen is like South Waziristan on steroids and the experience should give an advantage to the army.” At the same time, though, the military has been and will continue to face stiff resistance from militants in the region, ultimately meaning the operation will last longer than the predicted few weeks.
What is still unclear is the fate of the over 170,000 people displaced by the South Waziristan operation, [also highlighted at the Zeitgeist Politics]. Families began leaving the region in June, following the military’s announcement of Rah-e-Nijat, and settling mainly in Dera Ismail Khan and Tank. According to McClatchy News, “The refugees are being offered no food, blankets or other aid, however, no camps have been set up for them and resentment against the government and army is growing fast. The government halted aid in September, apparently in an attempt to prevent it from making its way into the hands of the Taliban.” In an interview with BBC News Monday, correspondent Syed Shoaib Hasan echoed that adequate supplies have not been provided so far to the rising number of IDPs, and spoke further on the issue of militants potentially hiding amongst the displaced. Despite the registration points that have been set up, he noted, “it is very difficult to tell who is Taliban and who is not.”
Given that Waziristan has never been truly “conquered,” and recent offensives have only been “partially successful,” [ending in peace deals rather than military control], it seems we have a tough, wintry road ahead of us.