Pakistan’s Frontier Corps Struggles to Hold Forts against Taliban Attacks

On the night of January 15, the Sararogha Fort manned by Pakistan’s paramilitary Frontier Corps (FC) fell to Islamic militants in a remote part of the South Waziristan tribal region bordering Afghanistan (The News [Islamabad], January 17). It was the first time in the 60-year history of the country that a military fort was lost to a non-state group and had most of its defenders killed or captured.

This was the second embarrassing defeat in recent months for Pakistan’s armed forces in South Waziristan, where military operations were launched in early 2004 to hunt down militants suspected of links with al-Qaeda and the Taliban. On August 30 last year, some 300 besieged Pakistan Army soldiers surrendered without firing a shot to the same group of tribal militants led by Pakistani Taliban military commander Baitullah Mehsud (The News, August 31, 2007). They were held hostage for more than two months and were exchanged on November 4 for 25 of Mehsud’s men as a result of mediation by the 21-member jirga (council) of tribal elders and clerics belonging to the Mehsud Pashtun tribe.

Though Mehsud secured freedom for some of his most loyal fighters—including four who had been convicted and jailed on terrorism charges—he was angry that seven others were not freed despite a promise reportedly made by military authorities to the jirga. To press the government to release his men and accept his other demands, Mehsud ordered the abduction of security forces personnel while his spokesman, Maulvi Omar, claimed that around 100 troops were now in Taliban custody. In retaliation, the government arrested Mehsud tribesmen, mostly detained under the “collective responsibility clause” of the Frontier Crimes Regulations (FCR) that empowers government administrators in tribal areas to apprehend anyone without specifying any charge and deny bail to the accused. The implementation of such questionable laws, together with the ongoing shelling and bombing of the entire area populated by the Mehsud tribe by long-range artillery guns and Cobra gunship helicopters, has fuelled anger against the security forces and enabled the Taliban militants to recruit more fighters.

Under the February 2005 Sararogha peace agreement concluded between commander Mehsud and the government, and following last November’s prisoners’ swap, the Pakistan Army withdrew regular soldiers from five forts located in South Waziristan territory populated by the Mehsud tribe. Only 41 FC troops—including civilian employees such as cooks and barbers—were left to defend the Sararogha Fort, sited on a ridge overlooking the Razmak-Jandola road in hostile Taliban-controlled territory (Dawn [Karachi], January 18). The British-era fort—which, like the other forts, was meant to serve as a forward military base—was stormed by around 400 Taliban fighters armed with light and heavy weapons including mortars, rocket-launchers and machineguns at 9 PM on January 15. Taliban spokesman Maulvi Omar maintained that the fort was captured an hour later by breaching one of its walls. Pakistan Army spokesman Major General Athar Abbas insisted that the hopelessly outnumbered troops put up a brave resistance for six hours. He put the number of dead soldiers at seven and listed another 20 as missing. According to the general, 12 soldiers managed to escape and reach another military fort at Jandola, which is located about 15 miles away. General Abbas also claimed that 40 militants were killed in the fighting. The Taliban spokesman, on the other hand, conceded the death of only two of their fighters and claimed that 16 FC men were killed and another 14 captured.

The military and the militants continued to make conflicting claims when another FC fort at Siplatoi was overrun by Mehsud’s men. The Taliban militants insisted that 60 paramilitary soldiers based at the fort surrendered peacefully and were forgiven, though the military rejected this claim (Dawn, January 18). Other reports insist the garrison escaped to the nearby fort at Chagmalai (al-Jazeera, January 17). The Taliban also continued to fire rockets and mortars at the fort in Ladah, which was better defended with more than 200 paramilitary soldiers. Supplying the Ladah Fort has become difficult due to control of the supply lines by Taliban fighters and their supporters. The military is now trying to advance into the Taliban-held territory in a pincer-movement from Razmak, Shakai and Jandola in an apparent bid to relieve the embattled forts and flush out the militants. That may not be easy to achieve considering the failure of similar military efforts in the past. However, the military is under pressure to regain control of the forts and improve defenses against future Taliban attacks. Heavy fighting involving aircraft and artillery is ongoing in the Ladah and Jandola regions following an attempted Taliban ambush of a military convoy near Chagmalai (Daily Times [Lahore], January 19).

The fall of Sararogha Fort showed once more that the Frontier Corps—which is drawn from Pashtun tribes and has officers from the Pakistan Army—has become a demoralized force after suffering repeated losses at the hands of the Taliban fighters. Desertions from its ranks have increased and fresh recruitment drives are failing to meet targets. Progress in the U.S.-funded plans to better train and equip the paramilitary soldiers has been slow. More importantly, the Pashtun tribesmen serving in the force are not sufficiently convinced that the war against fellow tribal members is in the interest of Pakistan and Islam.