Friday, 6 November 2009
The Pakistan Army announced today that four weeks after the start of Operation Rah-e-Nijat, its forces had entered into the town of Makeen in South Waziristan, having already routed the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan from a whole swathe of the region. This is no small feat. The militants had been left largely to their own devices in this region of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) for many years and had built up huge stockpiles of weapons and hidden arms dumps.
The last time the army attempted to enforce its writ in this area, in 2008, it was forced into a humiliating retreat. Then, in order to ensure the safe extraction of 300 of its soldiers holed up in a fort at Ladha, a few miles to the south of Makin, the army agreed to withdraw from the area and cede the fort to Baitullah Mahsud and his militants to be used as a "dispensary".
This time it is different. The speed of the Rah-e-Nijat offensive against the much-feared Mahsuds and their TTP and al-Qaeda allies has been truly astounding. The three-pronged Army offensive has captured just about every major town and village in the region, including Sherwangi, Kotkai, Kaniguram and Sararogha.
What is different this time? According to the Army itself, it has been done by adopting the very tactics used successfully in the past by the tribesmen. Instead of moving slowly and cautiously along the few roads in the area, where they would always be sitting targets for ambushes and IEDs, the troops have stuck to the hills, taking over ridges and commanding features before moving down to enter a built-up area.
"We have beaten them at their own tactic. This has been the classic Mehsud tactic, encircling and ambushing the enemy from the ridges and commanding features and we did the same to them. They were not prepared for this,’ one official told The Dawn newspaper .
In addition, the army has sent in 30,000 troops, many more than in previous incursions into the area. But probably the most important factor was air power from the Pakistan Air Force and the Army's aviation wing. Recently supplied with American high resolution cameras and night vision goggles - and using its own unmanned aerial vehicles (see my posting below) - the jets and helicopters were able to pick off their targets. The Taliban suddenly found that they no longer "owned the night", as they had done in the past.
In each engagement, the militants found themselves outgunned and outsmarted. Before long, even the allegedly tough Uzbek fighters had had enough and many have now decamped to other FATA agencies, including North Waziristan and Orakzai. The Pakistan Army claims to have killed around 500 militants for a loss of only 40 soldiers.
The TTP claim that they are making a tactical retreat only to draw in the army so that it can be better destroyed. However, this is merely talk. As several army officers have already asked, what kind of force that is intent on fighting leaves its weapons and arms dumps behind?
"When somebody retreats, he takes his weapon to fight another day. He does not flee and abandon his weapons. What has happened is that they have left behind huge cache of arms and ammunition", said one officer.
The real question is what happens next. If the Mahsuds and the TTP really are comprehensively defeated and sue for peace, it will have a dramatic impact on the fighting across the border in Afghanistan. We can expect a massive fall-off in attacks in eastern Afghanistan and perhaps a haemorrhage of the more ideologically driven fighters (including many of the foreigners) into Baluchistan.
The Paksitan government is likely to support the formation of tribal lashkars in South Waziristan to restore power to the traditional tribal leaders at the expensive of Hakimullah Mahsud and his clan.
However, the following points should be borne in mind. First, the successes so far are due in no small part to the decision by the Ahmadzai Wazir militant commander Maulvi Nazir in Wana and Hafiz Gul Bahadar to stay neutral and not join the fight.
Second, lashkars will only be formed once the non-TTP tribesmen are certain that the TTP will not be returning to impose their will (and take revenge) on the region.
Third, and most important, Pakistan's military has still not given up on the Afghan Taliban. It only acted against the TTP because it had begun to challenge the writ of the state. Until the Army accepts that the whole Taliban project on both sides of the border is doomed, the conflict is likely to continue. We are still a long way from that.