Military Victory in South Waziristan or the Beginning of a Long War?

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 38

There is hardly any doubt regarding the critical importance of the military operation in Pakistan’s troubled South Waziristan tribal agency, which is considered to be the epicenter of jihad and the nerve center of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and their allies. The latest military operation started in mid-October and has been widely described as successful in capturing most of the TTP bases in the difficult terrain along the Afghanistan border. After years of setbacks and failures in containing the rising power of the militants, Pakistan’s military has finally managed to dismantle militant bases in this critically important region, famous for its rebel movements and legendary tales of resistance. To encourage his soldiers, Pakistan’s military chief, General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, went in person to advanced positions in Waziristan. Pakistan’s western allies, who have long been critical of its military performance against Taliban militants, have also shown appreciation for Pakistan’s military performance. Even President Obama mentioned the Waziristan military offensive in his much talked about December 1 speech on America’s Afghanistan policy at the U.S. military academy at West Point, in which he referred to extremist militants as a “common threat” to both the United States and Pakistan.

Pakistan recently announced that its military has completed the offensive in the tribal region of South Waziristan and that military operations may now be expanded to the Orakzai Tribal Agency, where many Taliban commanders are thought to be hiding. However, Pakistan Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani quickly backed away from this announcement, describing the operations as “ongoing” (BBC, December 12).

The success achieved by Pakistani forces in South Waziristan is vitally important to the country’s lingering war against terrorism. The Waziristan counterterrorism model could be applied to other areas where the Taliban have strongholds and wreak havoc on the lives of innocent people. However, the latest wave of terror attacks clearly demonstrate that merely disrupting the Taliban bases does not mean that the strategy has worked. In fact, it seems the Taliban have successfully expanded their war beyond the mountains of South Waziristan. They are claiming responsibility for many of the latest attacks, most notably the attack targeting senior officers in the Pakistan Army while they were praying in a highly secure mosque in the garrison city of Rawalpindi. This attack revealed that the fight against Taliban militants is far from won, and the Taliban suicide squad is still intact (Dawn [Karachi], December 5).

“The Path to Salvation”

While highlighting the importance of this offensive, Pakistani officials said that the military operation in Waziristan is a war for the country’s existence and will continue to a logical end: the complete elimination of militants (The News [Islamabad], October 21). Code-named Rah-e-Nejat (Path to Salvation), the operation was launched on October 17 after months of preparation that involved amassing nearly 30,000 troops near the South Waziristan agency and shelling of the Mahsud tribes in order to weaken the Taliban position. In the full-fledged offensive, Pakistani forces not only started using heavy weaponry, but also fighter jets and helicopter gunships. Initial reports suggested that the government’s 30,000 soldiers were taking part in the operation against what officials described as 10,000 hardcore militants. This number included between 1,000 to 1,500 foreign fighters, mostly Uzbeks (Dawn, October 18). Military officials have said that more than 600 militants and 70 security personnel have been killed in the six-week long military operation (The News, November 30).

Many analysts quickly described this much-awaited operation as the “mother of all battles,” saying tough resistance from the militant side would provide the army with its greatest challenge yet (Daily Times [Islamabad] October 8).  Many also referred to the setbacks faced by Pakistani forces in this region since the start of the current insurgency in 2003-2004. Besides dozens of minor clashes and skirmishes, the three major previous operations in the South Waziristan tribal agency in 2004, 2005 and 2008 all ended in embarrassment for the Pakistani forces, leading the government to resort to controversial “peace deals.” Unfortunately, all these so-called peace deals not only provided the militants with a respite, but also helped them in strengthening and re-organizing themselves (Dawn, October 18).

Several events paved the way for the Pakistani Army’s operation in South Waziristan. First was the successful military offensive earlier this year in the Swat Valley against militants led by a local radical cleric, Maulana Fazlullah, which served as a morale booster for the military and inspired confidence in the people. The Swat Valley was taken over by Fazlullah’s forces and they implemented a strict version of Shari’a based on the Afghan Taliban government of the mid-90s. Second, the killing of Baitullah Mahsud in an August 5 American drone attack led officials to believe the time would be ripe for a military offensive while the TTP were mourning the death of their leader. A final catalyst was the spectacular attack on the Army’s headquarters in Rawalpindi in October that left 20 people dead.  The Pakistani Taliban took responsibility for the attack on the GHQ, Pakistan’s Pentagon, in which ten gunmen disguised as soldiers infiltrated the heavily guarded building (Daily Times [Lahore], October 13).The attack left the civilian and military leadership with no choice but to go after the TTP and target their main hub in South Waziristan (The News [Islamabad] October 20).

As was the case in the Swat military operation, there was again strong public support for the offensive in South Waziristan. For the first time, the Swat military operation was seen by the local people as Pakistan’s own offensive, not something done at the behest of the United States. A day before the launching of the Waziristan operation, the military leadership received significant political support from all of the mainstream political parties – ruling as well as opposition – except the pro-Taliban religious parties.

The Waziristan offensive was a much more difficult campaign with many more casualties than the Swat operation earlier this year. Surprisingly, Pakistani forces easily captured some important places like Makeen, Sararogha, Laddah, Kunigaram and Kotkai in four weeks without any tough resistance. These areas once made up the stronghold of the slain TTP commander, Baitullah Mahsud.

TTP Leadership Has Survived

Few military operations have received as much advance “publicity” as the South Waziristan offensive. Military strategists usually want to capture the enemy off guard. In South Waziristan’s case, the first formal, well-publicized statement came in June from the governor of the North-West Frontier Province, Owais Ghani, when he announced the government had finally decided to go all out against the Pakistani Taliban and its leader. There were warnings from many different quarters that a delay in the operation could provide the opportunity for militants, particularly the TTP leadership, to leave for Afghanistan or slip into other areas of Pakistan. In fact, there were strong voices in favor of a quick military operation while the Taliban were on the run after the military’s success in Swat.

Now that the first phase of the military operation in Waziristan is almost complete, with the major towns captured and officials claiming to dismantle militant’s bases, it is clear that top TTP leaders have survived and successfully managed to escape to other secure regions. This includes the movement’s current leader, Hakimullah Mahsud, and his top lieutenant, Wali-ur-Rahman. It is not obvious where they have gone, but it is quite clear that they have unleashed a fresh wave of terror by sending their suicide squads across the country.

The official story is that the three-month operation was meant to blockade the Mahsud tribal territory to stop the flow of TTP supplies and to provide an opportunity for the local civilian population to leave the region.  Since the Army was still maintaining order in parts of the Swat Valley with a troop presence of 20,000 soldiers, the government did not want to open another front immediately and delayed the Waziristan operation (Daily Times, July 21). The Waziristan operation may not ensure peace in the region because the TTP leadership is still at large. It is likely that militants retreated to their hideouts in secure regions where they can easily regroup and launch a guerilla war with terrorist attacks across the country (Daily Times, November 8).

The mountainous border region of South Waziristan is of critical importance not only to Pakistan’s struggle against militancy, but also for the U.S-led war on terror in the region, soon to be reinforced by 30,000 more U.S troops in Afghanistan. It was South Waziristan where the current insurgency began in 2003-2004, and it was this same region which gave birth to the Pakistani Taliban phenomenon that later expanded to other parts of the tribal region, finally culminating in the formation of the TTP in December 2007 under the leadership of Baitullah Mahsud. The region has been under the control of militants who have used this space not only for terrorist acts inside Pakistan but also for staging attacks across the border in Afghanistan. Terrorists were openly trained here and suicide bombers, mostly teenage boys, were trained and indoctrinated in these mountains. At times, South Waziristan also served as a nerve center for the militants’ poisonous propaganda against the Pakistani state and the United States and its allies (The News, Islamabad, October 23).

All this makes the physical occupation of South Waziristan by the Pakistani forces a major success, particularly after years of setbacks and embarrassments which included losing military posts, the surrender of troops to the TTP and failed peace deals with the militants. The jihadis have lost control of Waziristan, but they have successfully taken the war into the more secure urban areas of Pakistan, where they have been able to carry out terrorist strikes on the civilian population. The South Waziristan operation could be just the beginning of a long and difficult war.