It is the moment the United States and its NATO allies in Afghanistan have long been waiting for. The Taliban and al Qaeda cross-border sanctuaries that are fuelling the Afghan insurgency are under attack.
About 30,000 Pakistani government troops launched an offensive last October 17 into South Waziristan to eradicate the radical Islamic groups terrorising their country. Unable to stand up to the Pakistani army’s superior training, firepower and weaponry, especially helicopters and warplanes, the Islamist forces are being driven out of their camps and bases one by one.
This week, the Taliban stronghold of Sararogha fell after 21 extremists were killed, while fierce street battles were reported in Kaniguram, described as a base for al Qaeda-allied Uzbek fighters and as a Pakistani Taliban (Tehrik-i-Taliban (TTP)) “operational center.” According to a Pakistani brigadier general, between 600 and 800 foreign militants around Kaniguram had their resistance broken by “heavy bombing from jet fighters, helicopters and artillery.
“They are on the run,” he said.
The Pakistani military estimates Islamist casualties so far at about 500 dead and 786 wounded, while army dead number 40. There is no way to confirm these figures, as the media are not allowed into the area and, according to one report, all telephones have been disconnected.
The TTP, naturally, disputes the casualty figures and the report on the Islamists’ deteriorating military situation. A TTP spokesman said they are simply making a strategic withdrawal into the hills of South Waziristan’s rugged terrain to lure the army deeper into a trap. But the army has captured huge amounts of Islamist arms and ammunition, prompting one analyst to note an organized, retreating enemy does not leave its weapons behind.
What cannot be disputed is that the Pakistani soldiers and officers are fighting well. At first, military analysts were not sure how they would react to fighting against their countrymen, especially when some of them come from that region. The army’s professionalism has, so far, overridden any regional or tribal feelings, laying those fears to rest.
The army’s morale is also high after its successful campaign against Islamist forces in the Swat Valley last April. Using their experience from that offensive, seven brigades have cut off access to South Waziristan, while another seven are overrunning enemy towns and strongholds. The fall of the last one, Laddah, will mark the end of the campaign’s first phase to occupy all major towns and allow the government to begin taking control of civil affairs. The second phase will see the army move clear the valleys and small hamlets.
After an initial stiff fighting, most of the TTP’s tribal levies, unable to take heavy casualties, have melted away. South Waziristan contains two major tribes, the majority Mehsud tribe and the Wazirs. The hardcore TTP and al Qaeda fighters are also surprising the army now with their low level of resistance.
“We have broken the myth of the Taliban’s invincibility and we have also broken the myth that South Waziristan is a no-go area,” an army officer told a Pakistani newspaper.
The TTP and al Qaeda’s main response to the army’s advance have been headline-grabbing terrorist attacks. But these bloody and horrific bombings and assassinations, which claimed hundreds of innocent civilian victims last month alone, have only backfired. Besides having no affect on either the army’s fighting power or the Pakistani government’s determination to eradicate the perpetrators, they only have served to increase public support for the military’s Waziristan campaign.
The success of the Pakistani army’s offensive into South Waziristan stands out in stark contrast to those of the Musharraf era. Under the former Pakistani president, three campaigns were launched into the area regarded as the hub of world terrorism. Each was stopped after only a short time and peace talks held. These half-hearted efforts, according to one observer, only emboldened the Islamists since they believed “the Pakistani army could not fight guerrilla wars.”
The only disappointment perhaps in the offensive so far is the lack of support for government forces from South Waziristan tribes not involved with the TTP. Their knowledge of the area, irregular warfare skills and intelligence contribution would constitute an invaluable asset. At the campaign’s beginning, General Kiyani, Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff, even wrote a letter to South Waziristan’s non-Taliban Mehsud tribes, asking them “to extend all possible support.”
The tribes’ hesitation, however, is understandable. The ineffective Musharraf offensives allowed the TTP and al Qaeda to return and terrorize them. In the past, Taliban and al Qaeda thugs have murdered hundreds of tribal elders who opposed them. Probably adding to their reluctance to get involved is the fearsome reputation of the TTP’s new leader, 29 year-old Hakeemullah Mehsud. After interviewing Mehsud, a journalist wrote, “… his cold looks and wry smile left little doubt that he may not think twice before killing anyone.”
To the Americans’ chagrin, Pakistani authorities did make deals with some prominent Taliban tribal leaders to ensure their neutrality in the fighting. To the Pakistanis, these agreements are simply important strategic moves that will prevent their forces from becoming overstretched and allow concentration. A crushing military show of strength and force, the language tribals understand, in South Waziristan may also allow the government to impose its will in other tribal areas without resorting to arms.
When the Islamist forces regroup this time, it will be in the hills of South Waziristan’s inhospitable terrain where freezing, winter temperatures are expected about mid-December. The current government offensive will last until then. From this isolated area, the jihadists will almost certainly launch a protracted guerrilla war against the Pakistani army, which will remain in South Waziristan to prevent their return.
The American military knows from its Vietnam War experience that an insurgency cannot be defeated if the enemy is allowed to operate from safe sanctuaries. The Pakistani army’s destruction of al Qaeda and Taliban bases in South Waziristan will not end the Afghan conflict, but it will definitely render the Islamist forces much less effective. And for the American and NATO troops battling them, that is good news.