12 October, 2009

Battleground Waziristan

October 4, 2009 : Hakeemullah Mehsud, the new leader of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) was thought to have been killed in infighting. But to everybody’s dismay, he appeared before a small group of journalists at Sararogha in South Waziristan and vowed to avenge the killing of his predecessor Baitullah Mehsud. He also informed the scribes about attacking US and Pakistani forces in the near future.

October 5, 2009 : One person was killed and many were injured in a blast at an office of the UN World Food Programme (WFP) in Islamabad.

October 8, 2009 : Bomb blast in front of the Indian Embassy in Kabul. Reportedly 17 dead and 76 injured.

October 9, 2009 : Bomb blast in Khyber Bazaar near the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) assembly building at Peshawar. At least 10 people were killed and 40 others injured in the incident.

October 10, 2009 : Militants attacked the Pakistan Army Headquarters at Rawalpindi. It took the lives of 20 people.

October 12, 2009 : Forty-one people, most of them civilians, were killed when a suicide attacker struck a military convoy near a busy market in northwest Pakistan’s Shangla district

From the above, it is clear that Hakeemullah and the TTP have kept their words. And moreover, the Taliban appears to be a coherent lot with a well conceived strategy.

Actually, the series of suicide or ‘Fidayeen’ attacks are being carried out not only as a retaliation against the Drone-attack on Baitullah Mehsud on August 5, 2009 but also as a pre-emptive measure against the possible onslaught to be waged by the Pakistani Army on the Taliban stronghold in South Waziristan.

In April 2009, the Pakistani Army had driven out the Taliban from the Swat Valley (in the NWFP). Naturally though, on 4th October, Hakeemullah did not concede defeat at Swat but called it as their ‘Strategic Retreat’. But the fact of the matter remains that the bedrock of the TTP’s present policy is the maxim : “Offence is the best defence”. TTP chief had talked about mercy for the ordinary Pakistanis on his 4th October emergence in front of the media, but it seems that he has definitely not adhered to ‘his words’.

But would these fatal attacks deter the ‘Pincer Approach’ that the Pak-US combo wants to embark upon in order to sandwich the Taliban in South Waziristan? The Pakistani Army is almost ready to ‘pick up the gauntlet’ and barge inside the den of the Taliban. From the other side, the US-led NATO army is planning to aid the Pakistani Army by encircling the Taliban from the Afghan border. Can a well coordinated approach by the two armies guarantee success? These are the probing questions which probably lack unequivocal answers.

Pakistan is administratively divided into four provinces, namely : Punjab, Sindh, Baluchistan and NWFP. Apart from these, the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) are also a part of Pakistan. FATA is located on the western flanks of the country, with NWFP and Balochistan to its north and south respectively. The geographical arrangement of the seven Tribal Areas in order from north to south is: Bajaur, Mohmand, Khyber, Orakzai, Kurram, North Waziristan and South Waziristan. FATA has the Khost, Paktia and Paktika provinces of Afghanistan to its west.

At present, FATA is the home for the insurgent Pakistani Taliban led by the TTP. In 2001, the Taliban and Al-Qaeda began entering into the region. In 2003, Taliban and Al-Qaeda forces sheltered in the FATA began crossing the border into Afghanistan to revive their bases in Afghanistan. With the encouragement of the United States, 80,000 Pakistani troops entered the FATA in March 2004 to search for Al-Qaeda terrorists. They met fierce resistance from the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. Finally a truce was worked out with the Taliban. It gave an indication of the extent to which the Taliban had wrested control of the region. Eight more times, between 2004 and 2006 Pakistani troops entered the region, into South and North Waziristan, and faced further Taliban resistance. Peace Accords entered into in 2004 and 2006 set terms whereby the tribesmen in the area would stop attacking Afghanistan. Moreover, the Pakistani Army would halt major military actions in the FATA and release all prisoners. And tribesmen would be permitted to carry small guns.

On June 4, 2007, the National Security Council of Pakistan met to decide the fate of Waziristan and take up a number of political and administrative decisions to control "Talibanization" of the area. The meeting was chaired by President Pervez Musharraf and it was attended by the Chief Ministers and Governors of all 4 provinces. To crush the armed militancy in FATA and the NWFP, the government decided to intensify and reinforce law enforcement and military activity, take action against certain madrasas, and jam illegal FM radio stations
Economically, FATA is the most impoverished part of Pakistan, with a per capita income of only half the national average of $500 (in 2008). Only 34% of households live above poverty level.

Due to FATA's tribal organization, the economy is chiefly pastoral, with some agriculture practiced in the region's few fertile valleys. Its total irrigated land is roughly 1,000 square kilometres. The country does not have a system of banks. The region is a major centre for opium trafficking, as well the smuggling of other contraband, making it a fertile area for the Taliban insurgents, who generally thrive on such business.

Insurgent Groups
TTP and other Taliban factions stationed in FATA, especially inside South Waziristan have ‘unholy connections’ with the Al Qaeda and the Taliban groups based in Afghanistan; like the Quetta Shura Taliban (QST) and the Haqqani Network. The rumours signaling internecine squabbles amongst the different Taliban groups in FATA was put to rest by Hakeemullah when he arrived before the journalists on 4th October, 2009 along with Fidayeen-i-Islam commander Qari Hussain Mehsud and Taliban’s South Waziristan chief Waliur Rehman Mehsud. The TTP chief accused the Pakistan government of having provided 1,000 acres of land for expansion of the US embassy and said that American agencies had hired over 200 houses in Islamabad to promote their agenda. TTP wants a strict enforcement of the Sharia all over Pakistan.

The recently leaked McChrystal Report has corroborated the above-mentioned facts. In fact, according to the report, the QST and the Haqqani network pose the greatest threat to stability in Afghanistan. The QST is an insurgent group responsible for Taliban operations in Afghanistan. The group is led by Mullah Mohammed Omar. He is obeyed by most of the groups currently active in the Af-Pak region. Following the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001, Omar relocated the senior leadership council to Quetta, Pakistan. Though the QST is most active in southern Afghanistan, its operations have spread into areas of the north and west also. The Haqqani network, named after its leader Jalaluddin Haqqani, is an insurgent group which operates in eastern Afghanistan—in Paktia, Paktika, Khost, Ghazni, Wardak and even Kabul provinces. It also retains a base in North Waziristan. Sirajuddin Haqqani, the son of Jalaluddin, is reported to be in charge of the day-to-day operations of the movement due to his father’s ill health.

A senior Pakistani military official said : “If we don’t take the battle to them, they will bring the battle to us. The epicentre of the behemoth called the Taliban lies in South Waziristan, and this is where we will be fighting the toughest of all battles.’ The battle is being termed as ‘the mother of all battles’. Already this summer, the military has lost more than three hundred of its soldiers in the Swat valley. One out of ten was an officer — presumably the highest soldier-to-officer casualty ratio in any war, skirmish or operation in the world.

It must be remembered that the past operations against the tribal militants in South Waziristan ended in failure. The January 2004 operation led to the infamous Shakai peace agreement in April 2004, followed by another agreement with the now-dead Tehrik-i-Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud on Feb 5, 2005.

In late January 2008, the military launched Operation Zalzala with the stated goal of dislodging Baitullah Mehsud from his stronghold. The operation did not cause much tremors and only 12 days later, the authorities were struggling to revive the dead Sararogha agreement.

Illusions ?
‘The TTP as a monolithic organisation remains no more,’ a Pakistani security official claimed. The icing on the cake came with the death of Baitullah Mehsud in a drone attack on 5th August 2009. His death complemented the military’s plan that included an economic blockade already in place since June 2009. Thousands of army soldiers : two divisions, are now sitting on the fringes of the Mehsud mainland waiting for orders from the high command to move in. A debate is raging within some circles whether the military could have mounted an assault shortly after Baitullah’s death. ‘Baitullah is dead and his group seems to be in some sort of disarray. And this provides the best opportunity to go after them,’ the official said.

But the emergence of Hakeemullah Mehsud with leaders of other factions and the associated string of deadly attacks in mainland Pakistan raises serious doubts with regard to the consideration that the TTP has been humbled. Rather it appears to be emboldened. Even if not, then certainly it is not the last desperado act of the TTP.

Rajapaksa has shown the way to the world; in handling brazen acts of terrorism. The Taliban-Qaeda duo present a similar tangle. But they have a better ‘strategic depth’ vis-à-vis LTTE. Sri Lanka is an island whereas Taliban-Qaeda reside in large swathes of land area. Moreover, the rugged terrain of FATA, NWFP and Afghanistan surely gives a far better mileage to these insurgents than what the LTTE got from the plains and jungles.

What Lies Ahead ?
If Pakistan wants to be exculpated from their past deeds of propelling the Taliban to gain the so-called ‘strategic depth’ in Afghanistan, then it needs to act in a positive definite manner. Inter-Services Intelligence’s (ISI) own “Frankenstein” has to be quelled. Bravado of the Pakistani Army notwithstanding, the attitude of the military elite is still in doubt. The ‘India factor’ looms large on the Pakistani strategic horizon. Indian presence in Afghanistan and Central Asia along with present Indo-US camaraderie enhances the skepticism and buttresses the prevailing cynicism regarding India.

Furthermore, USA would keep on pressurizing Pakistan ‘to act’ against the Taliban and Al Qaeda, more so when the US $ 7.5 billion aid-package has been passed by the American Congress. The so-called “Kerry-Lugar Bill”, through which Pakistan will get $1.5 billion per year for the next five years, has been criticised in the Pakistani military circles and media for the conditions attached to the aid. It is the US administration which will verify and give undertaking on behalf of Pakistan every year to the Senate that Pakistan is fulfilling the condition mentioned in the bill. The contentious clause in the Kerry-Lugar Bill is related to the US demand that security forces of Pakistan shall not interfere in the political and judicial processes of the country. Will the ISI and the military accept such demands of the US?

Obama shall have to soon come out of the Nobel euphoria and fix up his mind regarding the “Af-Pak” policy. Realistically speaking, he has to send in reinforcements to his General McChrystal and continue the ‘Drone-attacks’ on the chosen Taliban and Al-Qaeda targets. And if Pakistan has to ‘survive’, then its military has to concede. The ‘mother of all battles’ has to take place, sooner than later. The Operation cannot be deferred too late due to the impending winter. End of November would bring in snow to the region. Hence, to bring in ‘peace’, everlasting or not, this ‘war’ seems inevitable. Waziristan awaits ‘the mother of all battles’.

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