After weeks of increasingly brazen attacks on Pakistani cities and military installations, al-Qaeda is under siege.
The Pakistani army this weekend launched a major offensive into South Waziristan, the tribal area in the north-western frontier that serves as a base of operations for the jihadist group as well as its confederates in the Pakistani Taliban.
Two army divisions – around 20,000-30,000 troops – began their long-awaited ground advance against the estimated 10,000 Islamist fighters in the rugged, mountainous terrain bordering Afghanistan after Pakistan’s top political and military officials made the formal decision for the offensive at a conference last Friday. Pakistani Prime Minister Syed Gillani chaired the meeting that was also attended by Army Chief of Staff, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani. “There was consensus that all efforts to eradicate extremism and terrorism will be taken forward,” said Senator Reza Rabbani who attended the meeting.
The Pakistani government had announced last March that it would eradicate militant Islamic extremism from the country. The attack was delayed until now, according to one military analyst, in order to coordinate operations with Afghan and American/NATO forces across the border in Afghanistan.
The operation’s aim is simple but ambitious: Al-Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban are to be decisively defeated. Unlike after previous offensives into South Waziristan, however, Pakistani troops will not withdraw when the fighting is over. Instead, they will remain and occupy the territory. Al-Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban will not be allowed to return, as was previously the case.
Several months of reconnaissance and air strike missions against the Islamists preceded the ground forces’ weekend advance. These operations, numbering in the hundreds and involving American-built F-16 warplanes, were meant to soften up the targets. The Pakistani army had also cut off all routes into South Waziristan and seized the roads. In the weeks leading up to the attack, thousands of people had fled the area.
The offensive is expected to last six to eight weeks, after which heavy snows will close the mountain passes the Islamists use. Islamist forces, chased out of the settled areas, are expected to spend a tough, debilitating winter in the mountains under arduous conditions.
While the offensive is unpopular with some Taliban and al Qaeda sympathizers within the Pakistani military and intelligence services, the Pakistani army’s morale is reported as good. Successful campaigns against Islamic radicals in the Bajaur tribal agency and the Swat Valley were confidence boosters for the troops who are tasked to clear South Waziristan.
The Pakistani ground forces are expected to advance behind a curtain of air strikes, artillery and tank fire – heavy weapons the Islamists do not possess. But the campaign may not be an easy one. Although initial resistance was reported as light, by Sunday, five soldiers were reported killed, along with 11 Islamists.
Nevertheless, the Pakistani army possesses distinct advantages. Under British rule, the tribal levies in Waziristan would ambush and raid invading British columns. That is unlikely to happen to any great extent this time, since the Pakistani military possesses hundreds of helicopters and warplanes, which can keep tabs on Islamist movements from above and attack any enemy concentrating for an attack. Moreover, many of the hostile tribes that the Pakistani troops are facing dislike casualties and cannot stand up to a modern army.
If the diehard al-Qaeda and Taliban combatants choose to stand and fight, however, they are expected to fight well. They have better training than many of the tribal fighters and a fanatical ideology to sustain them. They have also had years to dig in and know the South Waziristan terrain well.
The latest military assault is a culmination of events that began in 2007. During the Bush administration, Washington and London devised a plan to “tame the militancy.” According to Pakistani columnist Syed Saleem Shahzad, one aspect of the plan was to attack the Taliban/al Qaeda base areas in the tribal territories. The other was to replace then Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, a military dictator, with a civilian president, Benazir Bhutto, to accomplish this.
Musharraf, who had seized power in a coup in 1999, was perceived as possessing a hot and cold attitude toward the radical Islamic groups in his country, while Western countries expected Bhutto to go to war against them. Shahzad said the Pakistani Taliban saw through the plan and assassinated Bhutto in December, 2007, to derail it. But the assassination failed to achieve the desired result: It brought to power Bhutto’s widower, Asif Zardari, who has been steadfast in prosecuting the war against al Qaeda and the Taliban.
Yet it was not only Zardari’s resolve that resulted in last weekend’s offensive. The fact the Taliban and al Qaeda have declared war against Pakistan also made the government’s job to go after them much easier. This also contributed to the belief in Pakistan that the Islamic radicals were trying to take over the country and therefore had to be opposed.
Many ordinary Pakistanis also support their government against al Qaeda and the Taliban because they oppose the religious dictatorship that the Islamists seek. Destroying girls schools, movie theatres and music shops – this is not a winning platform among the vast majority of Pakistanis. The video of a pleading teenage girl being held down and whipped by Taliban religious enforcers last April also shocked and angered Pakistanis.
Taliban and al Qaeda terrorist attacks have also turned many Pakistanis into enemies. Innocent civilian bystanders often were the casualties of their indiscriminate terrorism and statistics show the number of dead is increasing. Islamist violence, which caused 907 deaths in Pakistan in 2005, took 8,000 lives in 2008, more than in Afghanistan where 6,000 people died. The fact that iconic landmarks like the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad in 2007 and the Sri Lankan cricket team this year were targeted added to the anti-Taliban/al Qaeda hostility.
Losing hearts and minds: Attacks like the 2007 Marriott hotel bombing have turned Pakistanis against the jihadists.
The current offensive could well defeat the al Qaeda-Taliban axis, but that does not mean the war against Islamic radicalism is over. Al Qaeda will probably relocate to another country, such as Yemen or Somalia, where it will try to rebuild its strategic command. Nevertheless, a victory over Islamist forces in South Waziristan would be a welcome development for Pakistan and the world at large.