October 23, 2009

Waziristan: Closing the Circle

Stage 1 of operation Rah-i-Nijat in Waziristan progressed mostly as expected and has transitioned into stage 2. The biggest question, how much resistance the TTP will put up, has been answered for now - it intends to fight hard but sporadically. Retaking Kotkai wasn’t an option, the TTP had to retake Kotkai to bolster the image of resistance.

Though the operation is still in its infancy, the TTP is already beginning to look like it will withstand the storm. Casualties are naturally running high as militant targets are pounded by artillery and air-support, not to mention US drones. The score stands at 157-19. The TTP will never win the kill ratio or the type of battle Pakistani forces are mounting.

“I'm obviously encouraged by the Pakistani operations,” Defense Secretary Robert Gates told reporters. “We obviously are very supportive of what the Pakistanis are doing. But it's very early yet.”

At the same time, Pakistani officials have admitted stiff resistance and that ground forces are proceeding with extreme caution. Bombs are set wherever Pakistani soldiers can walk or tanks can roll. Refugees speak of a fortifying Taliban and limited Pakistani troops. What they’re seeing is an envelopment of advance air strikes with a time-delayed ground assault.

The TTP cannot defeat the Pakistani army in this battle. If it chooses to fight head on then it will be massacred. Yet it must put up resistance, not just at symbolic locations but in the entire territory. The TTP knows it must fight in order to attract new recruits, so it has to balance this need with staying alive. It cannot “win” the land battle, but surviving requires resistance. Running away isn't an option.

While Swat has been used by Pakistani officials as an example of what they’ll do in Waziristan, Swat is more an example why the same outcome is unlikely. The TTP had its hands in Swat, but the subsequent invasion was an overreach. Swat was a balloon puffed up beyond its true environment, an artificial limb. Waziristan is a rock that won’t deflate, the heart of the beast.

Mohmand, Bajaur, Khyber, and Kurram would serve as better examples of Wazirsitan’s reality. The Pakistani army has engaged militants in these agencies for many months with limited success. Stacks of militants have died, yet new soldiers take up the arms of the dead. Nation-building is non-existent.

The TTP will ride a propaganda wave if it survives past winter, but its real damage will be dealt outside the conventional battle-zone.

A ghastly attack at International Islamic University was followed by Qari Hussein declaring “all of Pakistani is a war zone.” Then Brigadier Moeen-ud-Din Ahmed and his driver were killed in a driveby shooting, a rare attack that saw both assailants escape alive. The latest bomb struck an entrance to Kamra Aeronautical Complex facility, rumored to be involved in Pakistan's nuclear program, and now a letter has been sent to officials warning of suicide attacks on PML-Q offices.

The TTP has a far higher chance of success fighting asymmetrically, and these small gains parlay into media victories. Pakistani officials admit the battlefield has expanded beyond their predictions and that they aren’t prepared for such crudely sophisticated attacks. Pakistan's army may be supreme on the battlefield, but the Pakistani state itself is weak, the exact perception the TTP is hoping for.

Reports from outside the battlefield itself aren’t flattering either. At this point every negative story is a positive for the TTP. Rahmatullah Mehsud, who fled to a refugee camp, told reporters. “We came here for bread, but the police beat us up. There the Taliban were messing with things and the army was showering bombs. Here we have to bear the clubs.”

Mehsud’s perspective doesn’t have to be accurate to prove its point. As bad as the Taliban is, disapproval doesn’t translate into support for the government. Pakistan cannot win the war without acting above the TTP. It cannot be on the same level or even a notch above, but far above the TTP’s behavior.

Initial signs aren’t encouraging. Angry refugees are one thing, but Maulvi Sher Mohammad is another. The founder and leader of an anti-Taliban militia "thundered" in an interview, “The government has used the people like toilet paper, used them and thrown them away. We cannot fight alongside the army because my people do not yet know whether the army and the Taliban are friends or enemies. When we see the army crush them, then we'll believe.”

Thus we return to the battlefield, where the TTP must put up a good fight without fighting too much to win, and the Pakistan army “must crush them” to win. In a rare piece of good news, an Afghan Taliban commander expressed sympathy for the TTP, but said, “There will not be any support from us. Our aim was, and is, to get the occupation forces out and not to get into a fight with a Muslim army.”

Problem is, the TTP may not need support. It can probably handle this specific phase by itself, and by attracting and deflecting the blow, will leave the rest of its umbrella intact. Pakistan’s deals with Hafiz Gul Bahadur and Maulvi Nazir naturally irked White House and Pentagon officials; the drone strike into Bahadur’s territory wasn’t coincidence.

But Army spokesman Majorj General Athar Abbas defended the strategy, conceding, “When the state is seen to have turned out the biggest bully from the area, it has defeated that and it is seen by everyone around to have done that, then it creates vibes all over the place. It radiates effects all around and, therefore, what we expect is that since we have broken the centre of gravity, we have made them see this bully has been defeated, the terrorist organisation, this network has been dismantled and thereby the effect, which is natural, sees others re-adjust to this new existing reality."

US officials don’t want “others” re-adjusting though, they want Haqqani, Bahadur, Nazir, and Mullah Omar dead.

"We would like them to extend the offensive," said Stephen Biddle, a military historian and defense analyst with connections in the US government. "But we would also like them to hold what they clear. It might or might not be a good call for them to add territorial goals, when it is most important for them to hold what they take."

Bold analysis. We’ll stick our neck out - making deals with militants isn’t a good call. Realistically Pakistan has no choice. It barely has enough power to uproot the TTP’s heart and the odds of success would drastically reduce if every arm of the TTP was attacked simultaneously. This strategy also fosters an impression that the Pakistani army cannot defeat the TTP in its entirety.

Stay tuned for weeks of war slogging.


  1. Another way of looking at the challenge they're up against is to make the "leap" that the resultant refugee crisis will create futher means for TTP recruitment and Talibanize the displaced masses who will inevitable suffer civilian casualties. I took a long break for midterms, but I'm back and have analyzed this aspect on my page. Check it out.

  2. James did read your site already and we agree it is definitely part of the threat matrix. However, we think the largest challenge in regards to refugees is finishing the military operation. By now the refugees expect to get bombed and treated average or poorly by the government; they also expect the TTP to be destroyed for good. Failing to do so, we think, is the most potent threat and will drive tribesmen let down by the government into the TTP ranks. Refugees need to see their suffering translate into a better life, like Swat, instead of watching the army fail in Waziristan like it has before.

    Good to see you're back on the grind too.