The Pakistani military is continuing its offensive to clear South Waziristan of the Taliban and other extremists. The fighting is hard and Pakistan’s forces have suffered 42 deaths and 142 injured, with an estimated 450 militants having been killed. Approximately 155,000 have fled. As the country waits for President Obama to make a decision on a new strategy for Afghanistan, the world’s eyes need to be watching the equally important developments in Pakistan.
The Pakistani military says that their forces are advancing ahead of schedule, and that they believe they will have control over South Waziristan in December. They have captured Sararogha, described in the press as the Taliban’s “operational nerve centre,” and are now fighting to control Makheen, another critical Taliban base. Their success underscores how the Taliban have overplayed their hands, and a recent opinion poll in Pakistan found that 51% of Pakistanis support the offensive, with 13% opposing it and 36% undecided. Like in Iraq and Afghanistan, the forces of radical Islam become widely despised once their rule is experienced and their brutality against fellow Muslims is apparent.
The Taliban forces are currently following Hakimullah Mehsud, who grew up in Kotkai in South Waziristan, which has fallen from Taliban control, and who has deep tribal ties to the area. These ties were used to recruit militants, and members of the Mehsud tribe say that they don’t hate the Taliban per se, but hate the destruction they have caused. For the locals, the strict Taliban rule reduced crime and brought a form of stability, but also have brought warfare, oppression, and denied opportunities for infrastructure to be built and the community to progress. Based on this criterion for why the locals supported or were indifferent to the Taliban, it is clear that the Pakistani military must first bring about security and order, and then put together a local government body that does not alienate the tribal leaders and begin development of the reclaimed areas. The U.S. needs to help the Pakistanis use this narrow window of time to demonstrate the benefits of rejecting Taliban rule.
Western aid to Pakistan for such operations should be seen not only as a means of stabilizing Pakistan, but as a way of preventing more blood from being spilled on American and European streets. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, a terrorist group tied to Al-Qaeda, has released numerous videos showing off its German recruits that live in a village in South Waziristan. Western recruits, the most coveted type of operative for terrorist groups, continue to go to the area for training and meetings so they can slip back into their home countries. A cell of a dozen terrorists connected to the Taliban and Al-Qaeda that planned to carry out attacks on British shopping centers last spring, backpack bombings of subways in Barcelona, and other attacks in Germany, France and Portugal, were trained in South Waziristan.
Altogether, the intelligence services of India and Pakistan believe that terrorists had found shelter on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border areas prior to the offensive, mostly in North and South Waziristan. Other estimates put the number of militants fighting the Pakistani military offensive as high as 12,000 including 1,500 foreign fighters. Approximately 1-2,000 of these terrorists belong to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan group that is successfully recruiting terrorists in the West. Considering that only 20 terrorists executed the 9⁄11 attacks, these are frightening numbers.
The Pakistani military is giving positive reports regarding operations in South Waziristan. Removing the area as a bastion of radical Islam will help the U.S. win the war in Afghanistan, secure Pakistan’s government and nuclear weapons, and dismantle an important base for the Taliban, Al-Qaeda and other terrorists. As about 80% of the suicide bombings in Pakistan are planned from here, the offensive will have a major impact on stifling terrorist operations.
However, the fight is not over. The Taliban claims that their retreat is a calculated move, as they plan to re-assemble and strike back. With Baluchistan to the south and Iran and unsecured parts of Afghanistan to the west, there may be some truth to their statement. The Pakistani victory in South Waziristan can be cheered, but while the celebration takes place, the Taliban will be preparing from other safe havens how to deliver a reminder of their deadly capabilities.