May 30, 2011

North Waziristan Invasion Destined to Disappoint Washington

Although she brought her hammer just in case, she didn’t seem to make much use of it. Hillary Clinton is her own hammer anyway. Michael Mullen, the outgoing Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, surely pounded Pakistani leadership during a recent visit with the Secretary of State. In public, though, Clinton assumed the dueling roles of good and bad cop, first praising the Pakistani people for “standing courageously for their democracy and their future.”

“We are prepared to stand by the Pakistani people for the long haul,” Clinton declared in reference to the U.S.-Soviet exodus from Afghanistan.

Except the soft side of her diplomacy quickly wore thin. At a surface level, Clinton’s non-military and military message provides the necessary balance for successful counterinsurgency. In addressing the youth, education, economics and Pakistan’s suffering at the hands of extremists, nowhere is the controversial North Waziristan to be found. The balance of U.S. policy, however, cannot be concealed and remains tilted in the Pentagon’s favor rather than Clinton’s department.

According to the latest reports
out of Pakistan, Clinton and Mullen received a taste of what they really came for - more war in the Federally Administered Tribal Agencies (FATA). The overriding question is whether a new campaign in North Waziristan will heal Pakistan’s wounds and its relationship with America, or tear them further apart.

This new COIN operation is already showing cracks in the foundation. Far from being approved during Clinton and Mullen’s visit, Islamabad’s green-light into North Waziristan went on several weeks ago. Aid agencies reportedly received a two-week notice to prepare for displaced peoples in excess of 50,000. Islamabad appears to have made the tactical decision soon after the U.S. raid on Osama bin Laden, when it realized the looming combination of U.S. and militant pressure.

Amid this chaos, Islamabad could approve a long-delayed, controversial assault into North Waziristan under the pretext of targeting threats to the nation. U.S. officials would be placated with minimal fallout in the Pakistani public sphere. Thus Islamabad hasn’t been “pressured” to the extent portrayed.

The immediate mix up in motivation and objectives outlines the problematic nature of a future invasion. Because the announcement followed Clinton and Mullen’s war council with Pakistani military chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, U.S. media is under the impression that the Haqqanis will serve as the main target. Yet the ideal U.S. scenario is unlikely to play out over the coming months; who the Pakistani military will target - the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) or Haqqani network - already appears to have been decided.

“There are indications that the Pakistani military may undertake a targeted operation in North Waziristan to tackle the TTP and other foreign and local militants fighting the state of Pakistan, and sending suicide bombers to hit targets in the cities,” Rahimullah Yusufzai, The News International’s Peshawar bureau chief, predicted a week before Clinton and Mullen arrived. “But such an action could still fall short of US expectations. Pakistan’s plea is that the Haqqani Network isn’t based in North Waziristan and that its fighters and head, Commander Sirajuddin Haqqani, are all fighting across the border in Afghanistan. In case of a military action by Pakistan’s security forces in North Waziristan, the Haqqani Network is unlikely to suffer any major losses.”

Unless coerced under enormous pressure from Washington, the Haqqanis will remain a secondary target to feed the Obama administration’s craving for their blood. The network, one of Islamabad’s oldest Afghan assets, opposes TTP attacks on Pakistani military and civilian targets, believing the group should focus on Afghanistan instead. Local reports already claim the civilian government has been tasked to spin the invasion against Pakistan’s real enemies - rogue elements within the TTP.

Moreover, those commanders that pay allegiance to the TTP are likely to be left alone, including its commander of North Waziristan. Hafiz Gul Bahadur has maintained a tentative truce for years and is largely uninvolved with attacks on the Pakistani establishment, including those in response to bin Laden’s death. Launching an invasion of North Waziristan solely to eliminate Gul Bahadur makes no sense from Pakistani’s viewpoint. There is a high probability that the invasion will only target one key figure in the TTP: its chief Hakimullah Mehsud.

Earlier this month we documented how Mehsud isolated himself due to his uncontrollable behavior. An al-Qaeda follower to the core, the brash Hakimullah succeeded Baitmullah Mehsud against the will of Bahadur and Waliur Rehman, the TTP’s commander in Southern Waziristan. Both would like to get rid of him and work more closely with the Afghan Taliban, which Mehsud defied (along with the Haqqanis) when he executed long-time ISI spy Sultan Amir (Colonel Imam) Tarar in January 2011.

The ISI allegedly tasked Tarar with cleaning up Mehsud’s criminal network, which had begun to act independently of the TTP.

As Mehsud and his military camps moved into North Waziristan after the 2009 invasion of South Waziristan, Hakimullah could serve as the real target and a fall guy for the entire operation. Removing him while abstaining from the Haqqanis and loyal TTP commanders would play well to the Pakistani public, which doesn’t perceive the Haqqanis and Gul Bahardur as equal threats. Meanwhile Islamabad is planning a jirga to peel away these very assets before the operation begins.

The Nation reports
, “Sources said that the military leadership has advised the government to follow a multi-track approach in tackling domestic extremists. ‘The focus should remain on eliminating extremism rather than cleansing extremists,’ sources said, while reflecting on the resolve at the highest level. ‘A comprehensive national reconciliation policy must be in place before military action against militants that now is reportedly on cards in North Waziristan.’”

This strategy won’t satisfy Washington, foreshadowing an incompatible concept of the mission.

The ultimate question, then, comes in two parts: will a full-scale invasion of North Waziristan improve America's position in Afghanistan? Despite the “thousands” of Taliban killed over the last year by U.S. Special Forces and Predator strikes, U.S. and NATO deaths in the first five months of 2011 remain level to 2010. Hakimullah likes to taunt the CIA, but his direct impact in Afghanistan is negligible. So long as the Haqqanis escape devastating punishment, these figures are unlikely to see significant reduction. While the Haqqanis base themselves in North Waziristan, they have also diversified their network throughout the FATA in preparation for a potential invasion. North Waziristan’s operation may contribute to the illusion of success more than tangible benefits in Afghanistan.

“For the US to achieve or claim victory in Afghanistan, weakening of the Taliban is essential and it believes this cannot happen unless their safe havens in Pakistan are dismantled,” concludes Yusufzai.

The second half of this equation asks whether an invasion will stabilize the FATA, and thus hurt or restore U.S.-Pakistani relations. As a reaction to U.S. pressure after bin Laden and before the July withdrawal deadline, rushing a military attack for political motives doesn’t inspire the overwhelming confidence necessary to support it. Rather than create the appearance of a mutual agreement, the timing of Clinton and Mullen’s visit has reinforced the idea of Pakistan fighting America’s enemies for it.

Dr. Stephen Philip Cohen of Brookings Institute consistently upholds the Indian line in Pakistan. However even he admits, “I don’t have evidence of Pakistan army as radical in the extreme sense. However, it has become more anti-American. Some sections of the army are more anti-American than they are anti-India.”

Washington still hasn’t succeeded in convincing Pakistanis that their war is a joint effort - they feel that they’re fighting America’s war on their own soil. It is a highly conflicting war, religiously and politically, to wage among the military and civilian ranks. And in damaging Islamabad’s credibility before an operation is launched, the Obama administration has likely reduced its intensity and length. An incomplete mission will then validate public doubt.

Whether Islamabad possesses the means to both clear and hold all of North Waziristan feeds into this risk. An estimated 34,000 troops are already stationed in the territory, but they lack the density and capabilities to permanently hold their ground. South Waziristan remains a war-zone despite continual operations over the past two years, and restoring authority in North Waziristan may come second to Hakimullah.. A powerful account of the territory’s conflicted tribal elders and alienated youth also reveals the limited reach of Pakistan's nation-building. Restoring authority in the territory may come second to Hakimullah.

The uncertainty of an operation in North Waziristan is further compounded by the possibility of joint-U.S. operations - or unilateral raids. The Long War Journal reported one such raid today against the Haqqani network, and a Pakistani invasion could provide cover for U.S. operations. This arrangement would further inflame national tensions, particularly if U.S. troops mis-targeted civilians on Pakistani soil. Regardless, North Waziristan has become the Predator fleet’s main hunting grounds, and drones will pursue those militants fleeing Pakistan’s ground wave.

Unfortunately the youth’s anti-Americanism in North Waziristan is attributed to frequent drone attacks, a counterproductive counterinsurgency in the end.

Clinton insisted in Islamabad, “America cannot and should not solve Pakistan’s problems. That’s up to Pakistan. But in solving its problems, Pakistan should understand that anti-Americanism and conspiracy theories will not make problems disappear. It is up to the Pakistani people to choose what kind of country they wish to live in.”

Conspiracies are one thing, but anti-Americanism isn’t some hoax to be disbelieved. It exists for legitimate reasons that remain ongoing, many of which can be glimpsed within the potential invasion of North Waziristan. As the situation stands, an operation is likely to create more problems than it solves. Try as they do to speak in unison, Washington and Islamabad are still reading from different scripts.

Expectations and objectives remain incongruent, and risks appear to outweigh the reward.


  1. I always take what the Brookings Institute says with a shovel of salt.

    The winds may be a changin' in Pakistan.

  2. A race against an endless clock.

  3. Maybe you have seen this already?
    I posted it earlier.
    Sad, very sad.