June 14, 2011

North Waziristan’s Phantom Invasion

One of the main reasons the White House is entertaining thoughts of a “significant” drawdown after July - between 10,000 and 30,000 U.S. troops could redeploy from Afghanistan over the next 18 months - lies in the mountains of Pakistan. Several weeks ago Islamabad had voiced its intention to launch a long-anticipated campaign into North Waziristan, a gesture to visiting Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Michael Mullen, outgoing Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

An air roll-out would soften the agency for some 40,000 Pakistani troops, just in time for mid-July. These forces would theoretically neutralize the Haqqani network, a well-trained arm of the Taliban estimated at 4,000 fighters.

Any immediate withdrawal over 5,000 U.S. combat troops stretches the limits of military plausibility. For starters these units take weeks and months to move, so a July decision won’t reach the ground until August or September. 10,000 appears preposterous given the “fragile” state of coalition gains, and U.S. troops have gone on record in expressing the need more troops. 30,000 only provides a rough estimate for the next 18 months and, if all goes as plans (which never happens in Afghanistan), 70,000 troops will continue the ground war as planned.

A “substantial” withdrawal, or whatever buzzword the White House gravitates around, loses further credibility as North Waziristan recedes into the shadows again.

There’s nothing coincidental about an operation during July; such a move aligned with President Barack Obama’s next major address. That the administration likely realized Islamabad had duped it again adds to the suspicion surrounding U.S. policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Speculation of an “invasion” into North Waziristan started on an unstable base and never looked back. Timed to please high-ranking U.S. dignitaries, Islamabad took advantage of a retaliatory string of bombings from Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) to leak the operation’s pre-planning.

The announcement’s pattern immediately revealed a feint designed to placate U.S. pressure after Osama bin Laden’s fallout. Initial reports elaborated on how the Haqqanis would be spared for posing no declared threat against Pakistan. Last year the ISI tasked Sirajuddin, son of Jalaluddin, to retrieve the legendary Colonel Imam from rogue TTP chieftain Hakimullah Mehsud, who had taken the Colonel hostage and eventually executed him. Only the most extreme TTP elements, mainly Hakimullah and his suicide squad, would be targeted in North Waziristan, where his circle relocated to after the 2009 invasion of South Waziristan. Allies would be protected by negotiations through a tribal jirga.

If an operation is launched at all, that is. An invasion into North Waziristan, the one sanctuary that Islamabad has avoided at all costs, is always “in the works.” According to General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, Pakistan’s military chief and a U.S. favorite, the army is, “following a well thought-out campaign plan and is under no pressure to carry out operations at a particular time."

Corps Commander Peshawar Lt-Gen Asif Yasin Malik, who oversees military operations in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and adjacent tribal regions, added, “There has been a lot of media hype about the operation... I have no such plans as far as I am concerned. We will undertake operations when we want to do it, when it is militarily and otherwise in the national interest to undertake such operations."

As if to head off these public doubts, U.S. and Pakistani officials released a joint-intelligence team supposedly planned for months. In addition to al-Qaeda’s new head, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, four other big fish were released on a kill or capture list, including Taliban chief Mullah Omar and the Haqqanis. Except this list diverts attention away from the cracks within U.S.-Pakistani relations, rather than patching them up. None of these figures (especially old-school jihadists like Omar and Jalaluddin) have targeted or support attacks against the Pakistani state and its people, and expecting Islamabad to compromise them is idealistic.

The U.S. and Pakistani versions of North Waziristan simply gaze in different directions, Washington at the Haqqani network and Islamabad at Hakimullah’s hostile cell. Normally strategic objectives cannot be forced to match up.

These doubts temporarily subsided after the termination of Ilyas Kashmiri, leader of the ISI-affiliated Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (HuJI). Kashmiri allegedly arrived in South Waziristan from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa only weeks before a Predator took out his meeting with Punjabi Taliban. Numerous Pakistani officials initially vouched for his death, evidence that Islamabad hoped to play up its intelligence sharing, but conflicting statements from government and militant sources left his outcome unverified.

Kashmiri’s status illustrates the ambiguity surrounding U.S.-Pakistani intelligence operations. Even if his death is ultimately confirmed, Kashmiri’s meeting with the Punjabi Taliban indicates that Islamabad was willing to get rid of him. The Punjabi Taliban operates semi-independently within Hakimullah’s network, and is believed to have either gone rogue from the ISI or received funding from a radical ISI faction. Islamabad seeks to remove this particular faction, not the Afghan Taliban or loyal elements of the TTP, including North Waziristan chieftain Hafiz Gul Bahadur.

A “disappointed” Robert Gates and his replacement, current CIA director Leon Panetta, recently chastised Islamabad for sharing intel of two militant compounds. Two soon-to-be-empty compounds.

The same course of action must be expected in regards to the Haqqanis, given that this strategy is already underway. Locals report that select army checkpoints were removed to let militants slip out of Miranshah. Nevertheless Islamabad’s own actions aren’t the sole factor involved. As Washington and Islamabad have plotted a campaign for months, so too has the Haqqani network. We were told by our sources as early as 2010 that the Haqqanis had already diversified into the neighboring agencies. In February 2011 a truce was worked out between the Haqqanis and local tribes, allowing them to start moving into neighboring Kurram agency en masse.

The Haqqanis are said to be long gone by now, relatively speaking; they will always maintain a presence. The ultimate takeaway is that they’ll move to wherever the Pakistani army isn’t, basic guerrilla strategy enabled by a friendly government and populace.

Not long ago the Pentagon insisted it couldn’t defeat the Taliban without shutting down North Waziristan - a political concession to extract an operation - only to reverse course after being shut down. Despite major efforts by U.S. regular and Special Forces to wear them down, the resilient Haqqani network remains a primary threat to U.S. forces in eastern Afghanistan. And despite frequent engagement with U.S. officials, both Pakistan’s government and people remain disconnected from America. Obama will surely exploit Osama bin Laden's death to portray success in Afghanistan.

He might want to think twice before stepping into North Waziristan.

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