Should the Pakistan Army launch an operation in North Waziristan Agency (NWA)? Short answer: No. Is the so-called Haqqani network as deadly for US-Nato-Isaf troops as American official and media blitz suggests? No. Let’s consider these questions in reverse order.
Going by US and western intelligence and military accounts, the network operates in the velayats of Paktia, Paktika, Khost, Logar and Ghazni. Let’s also add Nangarhar to this list. Since 2001 to wit, according to The official US list of fatalities, the number killed in these areas from the combined US-Nato-Isaf troops are Paktia (1), Khost (39), Logar (37), Ghazni (74), Paktika (118) and Nangarhar (43). (NB: These statistics also include fatalities caused by non-hostile factors, including accidents involving road and helicopter crashes, weapons mishandling etc. See casualties.org/OEF/Index.aspx)
The total number of fatalities in these six velayats comes to 312. Compare this with Helmand (730), Kandahar (370), Kunar (153), Kabul (136), Zabul (99), Oruzgan (64), Parwan (54). If one adds up the numbers of fatalities, it should be clear that the fighting has been far more intense in the southern, central and north-eastern areas than where the network has been operating, with the exception of Paktika. Also, the eastern provinces combined have seen fewer fatalities this year than the average for one suicide attack in Pakistan.
Which brings us to the pressing issue of operational priorities: What groups should Pakistan operate against — those that are attacking Pakistani people and security forces or those that operate inside Afghanistan? Given limited resources and the stretch faced by the Pakistan Army, any commander would focus attention on the threat in his own area rather than pick up a fight with those who are not fighting his troops. As for the differential in resources, just one figure would be enough. So far, given US and other fatalities from improvised explosive devices (IEDs), the Joint IED Defeat Organisation (JIEDDO), a Pentagon agency, has spent $20 billion to develop techniques and equipment to counter the IED threat. Does this number sound familiar? Well, it equals the hyped figure of ‘aid’ that is supposed to have come to Pakistan since 2002 for the latter’s entire war effort, as well as under multiple other heads!
Pakistan is already facing a full-blown insurgency and urban terrorism by groups based in Fata and just across in Afghanistan. A recent development relates to well-staged and managed attacks from across the Durand Line on its posts in Lower Dir and Bajaur. The pattern of attacks and numbers employed show the attacking force is free to form up inside Afghanistan, has a secure line of communication to the base, can freely advance to the border, ingress, launch a surprise attack and exfiltrate. Surely, with all the radars, sensor-mounted balloons and unmanned drones, such movement should not go undetected. Apparently it does!
Pakistan’s experience also shows that no one area can be identified as the Centre of Gravity (COG) of this threat. The two US assumptions that NWA is the COG of Afghan insurgency and that once the Haqqani network is taken out, the backbone of the insurgency in Afghanistan will be broken, are wrong and self-serving.
As I wrote in The Friday Times in December 2010, the insurgency does not have a defined COG; there are multiple COGs and command lines are much more diffused than anyone is prepared to accept. There is already dispersal of the leadership and the fighters because of drone attacks. Dispersal and delegation of operations also provide the Taliban the flexibility they require to retain their asymmetric advantage.
The American idea that packing the punch against the Haqqani network — assuming that the network would offer itself as a concentrated target for the convenience of any superior force — would signal to others to come to the negotiating table is unlikely to happen.
In this game, Pakistan will be the loser. NWA does not just house the Haqqani network; it also has Haji Gul Bahadur, elements of the relocated Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), multiple Punjabi groups and remnants of al Qaeda. Currently, these groups are geographically confined. If Pakistan goes after them, it will have to face multiple negative consequences, including dislocating more of its population at a time when its build and transfer efforts in other areas have almost stalled and it is already bogged down in Mohmand and Kurram.
The network, currently no threat to Pakistan, would go for a link up with elements hostile to Pakistan and operating only against Pakistani interests. Elements hostile to Pakistan will get reinforced by such a link-up and, while use of force will make the various groups join hands, it will fail to translate into utility of force for the simple reason that the groups would disperse and spread out instead of offering themselves as a concentrated target to a superior force.
That makes eminent operational sense because, rather than losing too many men in pitched battles, the groups will disperse while retaining some fighters to engage advancing columns in combination with the use of area denial weapons like anti-personnel mines, anti-tank mines, ‘victim-operated’ IEDs and booby traps. This means that while they will try to slow down the advance and extract a heavy toll of advancing troops, they would not need to employ the bulk of their forces that are likely to extricate as the operation undergoes.
Pakistan would then be left with two negative fallouts: Future operational linkage between the Afghan Taliban and the TTP and other assorted hostile groups; and dispersal of these groups into other areas. An operation against the Haqqani network will also activate other Afghan Taliban groups against Pakistani security forces which are already battle-stressed, fighting the Pakistani groups affiliated with al Qaeda. That would open another front, currently dormant.
Meanwhile, what about the drones? Why should Pakistan commit ground troops if the drones are as effective as the US says they are and for which reason it is prepared to accept the cost of rising resentment inside Pakistan?
But let’s go higher up the ladder from the operational to the strategic and political. The UN Security Council (UNSC) has delinked the Taliban from its al Qaeda list, sending a signal to the Taliban that they can be talked to if they can prove that they are not linked to al Qaeda. Good move that, one which I have been insisting on before and since US President Barack Obama spoke at West Point. We also have, on the good authority of both Afghan President Hamid Karzai and outgoing US Secretary of Defence Robert Gates, that the US is in talks with the Taliban. This makes sense and shows why the UNSC has done what it has.
And why should Pakistan open up a front against the Afghan Taliban when they are now to be potential partners in peace talks?
Published in The Express Tribune, June 21st, 2011.