Monday 12 October 2009

Pakistan Army waits for the right moment to strike

As government ministers in Pakistan announce publicly that an attack on South Waziristan is "imminent", it is worth looking in more detail at the Pakistan Army strategy.
The government and military have been much criticised for not pressing ahead with an offensive in South Waziristan Agency (SWA), particularly in the light of the attack on GHQ in Rawalpindi. Critics say that there should have been a rapid movement into the area in order to capitalise on the successes in Malakand and Swat, where the Tehreek-e-Taliban (TTP) has been all but wiped out and many militants have been forced from the area, some into Afghanistan and others into the tribal territories. Instead, say the critics, the gap has given the militants a much-needed breathing space and allowed them to take the initiative.
However, the picture is not so simple. The army is also engaged in offensives in Khyber agency, in Tirah, in Bajaur, Malakand and some other areas. It has adopted a strategy of attempting to isolate South Waziristan from other parts of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) to minimise the chances of a general tribal uprising against the army.
This has also involved trying to buy off other tribal militias in nearby areas, including the Abdullah Mahsud group and the Bhittanis. Although there is no love lost between these groups and Hakimullah Mahsud's TTP, it is possible that they would lay aside their differences and unite to fight an army incursion. Howeve, all the indications are that deals have been done between the Army and the Mahsud's traditional foes in South Waziristan.
Remember also that the Pakistan Army - like the British Army before it - has never successfully pacified the tribes in South Waziristan. I am reminded of this in reading General Sir Andrew Skeen's wonderful book, Passing it On: Short talks on Tribal Fighting on the North West Frontier of India, first published in 1932 (and republished as Tribal Fighting in NWFP by Vanguard Books, Lahore, 2009).
Skeen, who had "footslogged or ridden most of the frontier from Mastuj to Kalat", says:
"I place the Mahsud highest as a fighter along with the Maimond, a little folk, but stark. The Afridi probably comes third - his blood feuds and sectional quarrels make him somewhat less ready to die. But all are apt in war and taken all in all are probably the finest individual fighters in the east, really formidable enemies, to despise whom means sure trouble."
He adds: "These men are hard as nails: they live on little, carry nothing but a rifle and a few cartridges, a knife and a bit of food and they are shod for quick and sure movement."
It is hardly surprising that the Pakistan Army is adopting a cautious approach to the long-awaited offensive. Air superiority means very little when the primary form of attack for the tribesmen is ambush and hit-and-run actions. The terrain is forbidding with few roads and ridge after ridge of high serrated mountains that allow large numbers of irregulars to appear and disappear at will.
For weeks now the army has also been shelling suspected hideouts of the TTP, as well as holding the whole Mahsud tribe liable, under the harsh Frontier Control Regulations, to having its property seized by the state.
It will now be looking for signs that its campaign of attrition is beginning to bear fruit. Some clues can be found in the regular statistics produced by the Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies.
By aggregating these figures, we can show, for example, that between the beginning of May and the end of December, TTP and others carried out a total of 1,053 attacks in Pakistan. The peak number of attacks occurred in June and July as the army offensive got underway in the Swat Valley. However, since then the number of attacks has begun to decline. The number of people killed over the same period as a result of terrorism or military action is calculated as 4,812. Of these 3,694 were categorised at Islamist militants, 731 were civilians and 387 were from the security forces - army, police, frontier constabulary, etc.
As with the number of attacks, the numbers of civilians being killed has dropped dramatically. Deaths of militants cluster around the beginning of June, the end of July and the middle of September.
I cannot vouch for the accuracy of these figures as I don't know for sure how PIPS gathers its information. Much of it comes from press reports or army reports, both of which are potentially unreliable. However, the figures would seem to show that militant activity is declining. If that is the case - despite recent bombing and shooting attacks aimed at prestige targets - it may mean that the insurgency in FATA is beginning to weaken. Once the army is sure of that fact, it will probably decide to attack, if only to avenge the humiliation of Rawalpindi.


Ned Hamson said...

Pakistani military jets also launched airstrikes on militant hideouts in Bajaur Agency, the northern-most district in Pakistan's tribal region located along the Afghan border.

A friend on the ground in Peshawar but whose home is in Bajaur, reports hevy bombing this morning and inability to get any news from wife, there or neighbors. Journalists closed out as well. In short, not all quiet on northwest front

sahar.gul said...

Hello Nick,
This is Sahar Gul, kindly recall, we met at Shangrila Muree, one of the shortest meeting I ever had. Just gone through your recent article- we can discuss on the role of military and operation. Guess you are Islamabad-based? My email is; my work can be further known through these urls:,