So, the world (read: the United States) wants Pakistan to go into North Waziristan because that is where the Haqqani network is based and that is the place where Al Qaeda leadership is hiding. Just for record, NW is also the place to which the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan has relocated and from where any number of other groups, including the so-called Punjabi Taliban, are operating.
To put it simply, even if, in theory, Pakistan did not want to take out the Haqqani network because Islamabad is supposedly sympathetic to it, then too Islamabad would have enough reason to go into NW to chase those groups that are operating against Pakistan’s interests. Let’s park this thought for a while and dispel another impression.
The assumption that NW does not have military deployment within the Agency – at least not sufficient – is wrong. With one division-plus, there are more troops deployed to and around North Waziristan than South Waziristan, where the army launched Operation Rah-e-Nijat (Path to Salvation) last October. The division has five brigades with the usual supporting elements of artillery batteries (field guns), signals units, medical battalions etcetera. The area is sub-divided into five sectors for brigade-level deployment. Additionally, there are 8 wings (battalions) of Frontier Corps. FC, which used to be the second line of defence, is now trained and equipped to undertake operations on its own as well as in combination with army units and sub-units.
Now to the issue of operating in NW. Statistics compiled from media reports and local journalists, and corroborated with data from the military, show that since 2005, militants based in the area have launched between 70 and 80 raids on different army posts in North Waziristan. These attacks have resulted in about 200 casualties, including over 50 soldiers killed.
There have been more than 200 reported IED attacks on army convoys resulting in nearly 400 casualties, with about one-third killed. Militants have ambushed army convoys at least 25 times, resulting in over 100 casualties. Nearly 600 mortar and rocket attacks on army camps have been recorded, causing nearly 150 casualties, half of them killed. Four reported suicide attacks on army check-posts have killed 12 soldiers and injured 47.
Statistically, the groups in North Waziristan, in five years, have killed and injured more Pakistani troops in and around the area than they have Afghans, Indians and Westerners inside Afghanistan since October 2001 – considering that the Taliban in Afghanistan are not just operating out of North Waziristan. Pakistan’s armed forces are being attacked, and killed, because the military has mounted constant, targeted operations against groups based in North Waziristan even as it has gone for more sweeping operations in Bajaur, Buner, Khyber, Lower Dir, Malakand, and South Waziristan.
In 2005 alone, the military launched 17 operations in North Waziristan including snap action and area domination and cordon-and-search operations. In 2006, it conducted 16 such operations. There was a lull for a few months after a peace agreement in late 2006, which lasted until about mid-2007. Following the breach of this agreement by the militants, there was an unprecedented increase in insurgent activity, forcing the military to deploy more troops to the area.
From that point onwards, because the military has had to operate in Bajaur, Buner, Khyber, Lower Dir, Malakand, and South Waziristan, it has focused on using force selectively in North Waziristan to deny the militants area domination. There was, and has been, trouble in North Waziristan but there was more trouble emanating from South Waziristan, Bajaur and Malakand and they demanded operational priority – because that was where the TTP and its affiliates were based and operating not just against the army and Frontier Corps, but launching terrorist attacks across Pakistan.
From 2008 until this year, operations in North Waziristan have also included the use of aerial platforms in support of ground operations. The casualty figures show that since 2005 in North Waziristan, the military has lost over 300 men, while the number for the injured is nearly 1,000. Over 700 militants have also been killed, half of them from US Predator strikes for which much human intelligence comes from Pakistani sources.
Operational strategy is not about doing what is desirable, but what is achievable – step by step. Pakistan is doing all it can to put down militants. At places the military has succeeded in the first phase and now has to focus on the second, more important phase of consolidation and rebuilding. The sheer size and treacherous terrain of the troubled area make operations extremely difficult. And consolidation demands money, which is not forthcoming.
Let us also add to this the drone attacks whose frequency has increased. Those attacks have managed to take out a number of high-value targets. The exact arrangement under which the attacks are being mounted (for instance, who is providing ground intelligence for them) remains unclear. But what is clear is the fact that Pakistan does not have an operational problem with the use of drones in specific areas. It saves both sides from exposing troops to unnecessary danger. This also means that the reality of what needs to be done, and is being done in NW, is different from what we hear in the media.
Unlike the media Napoleons, especially in the US, the Pentagon understands the complexity of operating in North Waziristan and realises that while an operation in North Waziristan is important, its timing can only be determined by Pakistan. The army appreciates the situation; the commentators, with their own angles, situate the appreciation.
However, whether simply operating against these groups is likely to either put to the rest the problem regionally or globally is a proposition that needs a rethink. The narrative given by Khalid Sheikh Mohammad during his 2007 trial by a military tribunal makes it clear that the causes lie in what people perceive to be an unjust US foreign policy. Not just that, people are also prepared to die and kill to restore the balance. So, there is a level higher here than NW or Afghanistan. It doesn’t seem like much is being done to address issues at that level.
The writer is Contributing Editor, TFT