Pakistan: Behind the Waziristan Offensive

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Ijaz Muhammad / AP

Some 30,000 Pakistani troops launched a much-awaited ground offensive in the al-Qaeda and Taliban stronghold of South Waziristan on Oct. 17, 2009

After nearly three months of planning, and very public anticipation, Pakistan's military moved on the South Waziristan stronghold of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), an umbrella group of militants that Pakistani officials say have been behind some 80% of terrorist attacks in the country over the past few years, including the 2007 assassination of Benazir Bhutto and a recent spate of violence that has taken 150 lives in the past two weeks.

The ground operation, code-named Rah-i-Nijat (Urdu for "Path to Deliverance"), was launched early Saturday morning after weeks of heavy aerial bombardments that were designed to weaken militant fortifications. By Sunday, some 28,000 soldiers had moved into a remote corner of the mountainous region, in a three-pronged attack intended to trap the estimated 7,000 to 10,000 militants in South Waziristan, including some 1,000 Uzbek and foreign fighters who may be affiliated with al-Qaeda.

Heavy fighting has already claimed the lives of at least three soldiers (two of whom were killed by a land mine) and dozens of militants, according to military officials. Across the country, Pakistanis were glued to their television sets, watching an offensive that seemed far away against the militants who were believed to be responsible for the widespread terrorist attacks that have left few corners of the country unscathed. Sunday morning's Dawn newspaper led with the headline "Army Embarks on Rah-i-Nijat, Finally."

Anticipation for the Waziristan offensive began this summer, after the conclusion of active fighting in Swat, another militant stronghold in Pakistan. Provincial officials announced that the government had decided to move next against the then chief of TTP, Baitullah Mehsud, in his South Waziristan stronghold. But military operations in Swat continued and fighting spread to other districts, which tied up army operations for several more months.

In August, Mehsud was killed in a U.S. Predator drone strike, leading to a vicious power struggle that elevated his deputy, Hakimullah Mehsud (thought to be in his late 20s) to power. The young man's promotion may explain the recent string of terrorist attacks in Pakistan, including an audacious assault on military headquarters as well as coordinated raids on three security installations in Lahore. "You now have a young, flamboyant and dynamic leader in charge, and he wants to prove himself," says Major General Mahmud Ali Durrani, who after retiring from the Pakistani army served as ambassador to the U.S. "Like many young soldiers, he is aggressive, but he doesn't have the wisdom or experience of Baitullah. This will make him a difficult adversary."

That may be why the military took so long to launch the operation, which many army officials caution may take up to two months. But the announcement of the impending offensive and its subsequent delay may have made the situation more difficult, according to Senator Tariq Azim, who points out that the militants have had plenty of time to fortify their bases and stock up on supplies, or worse. "What is happening now is that terrorists in Waziristan know that they have two choices: they can stand and fight and die in the process, or they can escape to the cities, where they know that if they are going to die, well at least they can take a lot of people with them," he says.

Military officials, however, maintain that the months-long delay was essential for preparing for what is sure to be a long, difficult and drawn-out fight. The battle for Swat and its surrounding areas provided vital counterinsurgency training tools for the military, which also spent recent months cutting off supply lines to the militants in South Waziristan, hoping to weaken their defenses.

The Swat operation, still considered incomplete by some camps, holds many more lessons for Waziristan. Some 360 soldiers died in the battle for Swat, 60 of them officers, proving that military operations in difficult, mountainous areas against a committed guerrilla army that is familiar with the terrain can be costly. South Waziristan holds even harsher terrain, with less infrastructure, and the military will have to resort to even longer supply lines through enemy territory.

The new offensive may also prove to be more challenging because, unlike the Swat Valley — a scenic, tourist-friendly area whose residents depend on outsiders for income and trade and income — South Waziristan has historically been closed to outsiders. Even in Swat, which political leaders have declared a victory, insurgents are still ambushing military convoys and launching suicide bombings against civilian and security targets, proving, as many local residents have long attested, that Taliban leaders are still present in many of the region's villages.

The remote and largely ungoverned nature of South Waziristan made it the ideal hiding place for foreign militants, al-Qaeda and Afghan Taliban fleeing the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. Over the years, unmolested by government intervention, various groups of militants fortified their bases and recruited local residents to their cause. From those groups, the Pakistani Taliban emerged in 2003, partly in response to then President General Pervez Musharraf's about-face on support for the Afghan Taliban after the Sept. 11 terror attacks in the U.S.

Since then, the Pakistani army has led three military actions in South Waziristan, all of which ended in failure, forcing the military and government to sign peace accords that did little more than allow the militants to reorganize and strengthen their forces. This time, Hakimullah Mehsud and his followers are sure to fight even harder, knowing that if they fail, it could mean the collapse of the TTP movement.

As with Swat, the long lead time before the attack on South Waziristan allowed more than 100,000 residents to flee the area and go to camps set up for an expected flood of refugees. While this massive influx of displaced persons risks a humanitarian disaster, especially if the operation is not wrapped up before the onset of winter, it does allow the military to work unimpeded without risking civilian casualties. Still, the camps, if not managed properly, can cause widespread resentment and frustration for displaced civilians, and provide fertile ground for anti-government propaganda.

It's also important that the action in South Waziristan doesn't end with the military operation. In order to fill the power vacuum, the civilian government will have to follow quickly behind with infrastructure, schools, medical clinics and courts — key elements whose absence allowed the Taliban to flourish in the first place. There, too, a lesson can be taken from the Swat experience. Military officials in the Swat Valley recently released thousands of low-level Taliban captives into the custody of local authorities, who have neither the infrastructure to hold nor the facilities to try the militants.

"Civilian reconstruction must dovetail seamlessly with the military operations this time around," says Durrani. "My fear is that it will not, and that everything we gain in the military operation will be lost if the government fails to provide the necessary [services]. I am holding my breath. The future of Pakistan's children and grandchildren depends on this."