Army chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani has finally said what the world had been waiting to hear for quite some time now. Speaking at the Azadi Parade at the Pakistan Military Academy over a week ago, he said that militants were a threat to Pakistan and that the army and the nation needed to fight them under a united banner. Yet, he still fell short of calling them Taliban.
Since that speech, there have been conflicting statements and reports — from Washington and Islamabad — on the scope of the planned operation against militants, specifically in North Waziristan. A joint operation has been ruled out by Pakistan and in any case America will not want to get entangled in another area. A coordinated operation and what it would entail has not been explained by either America or Pakistan. Yet, the operation is imminent now. Additional troops have been moved to the area. The army is claiming that a final decision will be taken by the government and if not withdrawn, governor Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa’s order of 2009 should still be effective and can be used to start the operation.
If a targeted operation means going after specific targets, it will require excellent intelligence, which is lacking at the moment. The Pakistan army also does not have the luxury of drones, gunships and the use of the air force could result in extensive collateral damage. This means that for raids on specific targets, ground troops will have to be deployed. Use of ground forces will result in fighting in the built-up area, which is dreaded by armies due to heavy losses suffered by troops in such situations. Due to limited night-flying capabilities, night raids as carried out in Afghanistan are also not possible. Furthermore, villagers fear the Taliban, so they will not provide help and intelligence to the military. A targeted operation will be a slow and prolonged campaign and will not bring about a quick solution.
A possible option could to be to emulate the strategy employed in Swat and South Waziristan, of vacating the whole area and treating any person found after a deadline as enemy. Swat was a success primarily because of factors not relevant in the North Waziristan case. Both Swat and South Waziristan (the Mehsud area) had no access to Afghanistan. Historically, Swat was a peaceful area and militancy was not in the blood of the Swatis. Falling unknowingly into trap of the Taliban, they were quick to vacate the area, became IDPs and within three months went back to their homes. The IDPs of South Waziristan are still reluctant to go back and remain in camps in Dera Ismail Khan and Tank. Though much smaller than South Waziristan, North Waziristan cannot be vacated. With porous borders, militants will prefer crossing the border. And that is where a coordinated effort will be needed. But ISAF’s ability to deploy sufficient troops on the Afghan side of the border is in doubt.
Yet another option is to keep the operation localised. Instead of a major offensive, the agency can be cleared piecemeal. For example, a possible area can be from Bannu till Mir Ali, securing the Mir Ali-Thal road and including the right bank of the Tochi River. However, chances are that militants will not let it remain a localised operation and will try and spread it. Lacking the capability to fight pitched battles, their decentralised command system gives them the advantage of being able to take the initiative and employ hit-and-run tactics.
Whatever option is adopted, it is going to be a prolonged operation and various factors will affect the outcome. Even if it is to target the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the reaction of Hafiz Gul Bahadur and Maulvi Nazir of South Waziristan will play an important role. They are most likely to jump into the conflict. Also, a question remains as to why the US is interested in an operation against only the TTP. At the very least, the American perception that the situation in Afghanistan is bad because of North Waziristan will be proved wrong.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 24th, 2012.
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