A recent Washington Post outlined a problem military officials are encountering in the aftermath of Pakistan’s incursion into South Waziristan. While they insist the militants are “on the run,” where they’re running to seems to damper this tactical victory.
Officials say a militant exodus into Pakistan’s major cities - Karachi, Lahore, and Islamabad - has forced US intelligence to track a diaspora of extremism. A Pakistani intelligence official who said the militants were "on the run,” added, “Now they're all over - Afghanistan, North Waziristan and inside Pakistan."
That’s a heavy caveat.
To be clear, we’re unsure of whether the Post or its sources are speaking when it states, “The spread of fighters is an unintended consequence of a relatively successful effort by the United States and Pakistan to disrupt the insurgents' operations.”
Either way, preparing for neither possibility is inexcusable. We doubt US military officials were surprised and wonder if they intended for the TTP to relocate inside Pakistan’s urban environment. Chatter over the last year affirmed that they had already initiated the process, preparing the ground for a withdrawal from South Waziristan.
Rather than being caught off guard, America and Pakistan lacked the ability to disrupt militant migration on a significant scale. They must focus on high-value targets allowing the bulk of the TTP’s foot soldiers to act with impunity and grow cells in Pakistan’s major and minor cities, along with their suburbs.
The TTP’s level of activity exceeds law enforcement capabilities.
Does this strategy constitute victory, defeat, or stalemate for the TTP? Octopus Mountain wrote before Pakistan’s incursion into South Waziristan that the TTP must mount formidable resistance to counter Pakistan’s expected tactical success, but not to the point of overexposure.
Everyone expected the TTP to melt away, which is why putting up a fight in their own area of operations would have boosted their reputation.
The TTP’s reputation took a small beating after putting up minimal resistance on the actual battlefield, just enough to maintain a constant presence. The Pakistani army mocked it for succumbing to its own tactics - mountain warfare, scaling ridges and ambushing TTP positions directly over peaks.
Yet the TTP delivered as expected in the unconventional battlefield, turning all of Pakistan into a war zone and demonstrating national reach. Islamabad was embarrassed when its officials admitted they were unprepared for the TTP's sophisticated attacks on generals and military installations.
These parallel operational levels suggest an overall stalemate in the war, where the government and TTP demonstrate superiority in particular areas of the battlefield, conventional and unconventional respectively.
Add nose-diving approval for the TTP and Pakistan seems back on top, as another round of operations should launch in early spring. But this advantage is countered by the TTP’s resilience, who outlasted Pakistan’s army and deflect a crushing blow. Abandoning South Waziristan is offset by new territory in the cities and the TTP remains in control of other FATA agencies.
TTP chief Hakimullah isn't even from South Waziristan. He might not see as much value in it, but he could also be planning to mass in another province in order to lure Pakistan’s army out of South Waziristan, then re-infiltrate and restart its cycle.
The problem with stalemate is that tie goes to the guerrillas. Pakistan's economy is not in verge of collapse, but not in a position to fight a long-term counterinsurgency. US aid sits on glass though, waiting to be broken if ever Islamabad were to stop taking orders from Obama.
In a way they're playing the TTP's game - a war of exhaustion - but perversely the real winner could be America.
US officials would rather empty the FATA into Pakistan’s cities than plot against a US city in the mountains, counterproductive as this strategy is. The TTP and its allies then focus on disrupting Pakistan internally, part of America’s objective to increase military support. Under heavy fire, Islamabad might grudgingly accept US support in Balochistan, Peshawar, and Karachi.
With the FATA relatively empty of local militants, al-Qaeda might become exposed to Reapers if they stay or move. Most US officials would also say nuclear weapons at this point of the speech. Too bad American interests aren't actually served by destabilizing Pakistan, because only a stabilized Pakistan benefits America.
Organized chaos appears easier than it truly is, and less-destructive than it ultimately becomes. This conflict shows no signs of letting down, a tragic but magnificent insurgency specimen.