November 8, 2009

Waziristan: Preparing to Storm

Although the Dawn reported that Operation Rah-i-Nija (Path to Salvation) entered its second phase two weeks ago, the other day produced a more accurate account. Regardless, the Pakistani army overwhelmed the TTP and holds the higher hand - literally.

One official boasted, “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.”

The first phase, reportedly aimed to capture all major TTP towns in South Waziristan, is nearing completion. 450 militants have been killed in 21 days, according to Major General Athar Abbas. Sherwangi, Kotkai, Kaniguram, Sararogha, Karama, and Ladha Fort have fallen, and the army is preparing to storm Mehsud’s regional HQ in Laddah, the final act of phase one.

Pakistani soldiers are busy clearing mines and funneling into Makeen from Razmak to the north. Troops captured Sheen Sar and the Hanrai Tangi area near Sararogha, and Panj Plorai and Ashkar Kot from the Razmak side. Makeen is the next target and the field is being prepared for battle.

The TTP is not looking good. After putting up stiff resistance initially, Pakistani officials are mocking the TTP’s retreat. Foreign Minister Makhdoom Shah Mahmood Qureshi told reporters, "The operation so far has been very successful. The resistance that we were expecting initially did not come with the same swiftness we were expecting.”

“We have broken the myth of Taliban’s invincibility and we have also broken the myth that South Waziristan is a no-go area,’ a senior military officer bragged.

The TTP has lost the first of its battles if true. Losing towns isn't as important as putting up resistance. Territory can be retaken, but reputation, once spoiled, is hard to rebuild. The battle is far from over and the TTP might have something up its sleeve, but it’s losing the battle of perception.

In a positive but uncertain sign, no massive attacks have occurred for a week, only the failed assassination of Brigadier Sohail, the third since Waziristan was invaded. Obviously, a week of peace in a modern society like Pakistan demonstrates the opposite view. More attacks are likely coming, it’s just a matter of when.

More than its performance on the conventional battlefield, “victory” to the TTP is won through unconventional attacks on the state. It cannot afford to go silent, especially since it's waging an ineffective guerrilla war in the traditional "fish in water" sense. Political administration officials say almost 99% of the Mehsud population left South Waziristan, leaving the army to attack at will.

If the TTP is permanently crippled then it could be defeated once the tribes return, but anything less will fail to fully capitalize on this opportunity.

Two questions going into Laddah. The government and TTP are locked in a fierce propaganda war, each trying to paint the other as cowardly. The government reports, in addition to taking most militant strongholds with relative ease, fleeing Taliban leaving ammunition caches behind.

Feeling the heat, Hakimullah Mehsud told his fighters in a radio address, “Remember this is the commandment of God that once fighting starts with the enemy, you cannot leave the battlefield without permission from your commander, and don’t look for excuses to run away from the fighting. Of those, who do run away, such people will go to hell.”

Hakimullah also challenged the perception that he was retreating. TTP commanders, The News reported, claim, “their withdrawal from their former strongholds was tactical and that they were planning to launch scattered attacks on security forces.”

The question, then, is what he’s planning to do. Has the TTP been routed, shocked by the Pakistani army scaling mountains, and retreating? Is it tactically withdrawing from towns, assuming it can retake them, and preparing hit and run guerrilla warfare? Or is it attempting to stall until winter?

Qureshi told CBS that Pakistan would go as far as it could until mid-December.

“We would want to achieve our objectives as much as possible before the winter sets in,” he said, “and it seems, as things are going on, that we might be able to do so ... I can't give you a date but that area becomes very cold (by late December). We want to operate and establish our foothold before that."

Maybe the TTP is combining two or more strategies. It’s lost the momentum and the TTP must reverse the swing, but the Pakistani army will fight relentlessly until it no longer can. Surviving may take precedent, which Pakistan must then be vigilant of. Security officials claim Uzbek fighters have relocated to North Waziristan, where Hafiz Gul Bahadur enjoys a truce.

That means they’re waiting to fight.

Secondly, for all the conspiracy theorists, Information Minster Qamar Zaman Kaira and military spokesman Major-General Athar Abbas finally gave them something real to chew on. Abbas said at a press briefing that a large quantity of Indian arms and ammunition, literature, medical equipment and medicines had been recovered from Sherawangi area, near Kaniguram.

India denied the report, as if it would ever admit to the charge. We don’t believe that RAW, along with the CIA and Mossad, funded the TTP to spark a war with Pakistan that would lead to its self-destruction; Hakimullah didn’t need additional motivation to launch his bombing spree.

That said, reports from the field indicate the TTP's arsenal of guns is modern, not cobbled together from relics of past conflicts. Either someone’s importing them or stealing them, or both. Waziristan is a nightmare in reality, but a political scientist’s ideal experiment.

We’re about to see a reaction.

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