The battle for Waziristan
Though military operations are launched unannounced to catch the enemy off guard, the case of Operation Rah-i-Nijaat has been altogether different.
While at the time of writing troop movement and reports emanating from Peshawar indicated that the operation had begun in South Waziristan, since June there have been regular indications that the army was ready to start hostilities against the Taliban in the area.
This strategy may have been initiated to give ample time to the civilian population of Waziristan to leave for safer places and convert the area into a battlefield where the security forces could unleash their arsenal without causing too much collateral damage.
In June NWFP Governor Owais Ghani announced that the government had finally decided to go all out against the (now dead) chief of the banned Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Baitullah Mehsud, and his cronies and that the army and other law-enforcement agencies were being given a free hand to take them on.
The decision was welcomed as the TTP had inflicted severe sufferings on innocent civilians, slaughtered men in uniform, assassinated religious scholars and bombed educational institutions and government infrastructure.
Figures vary, but it is estimated that Waziristan is home to more than 5,000 hardened militants besides some 2,000 Uzbek fighters. The total strength of the enemy in the area is said to be 10,000. The reported death of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) leader Tahir Yuldashev in a drone attack in South Waziristan in August was a big blow to the violent foreign militant group that was waging a fierce campaign against Pakistan and its state agencies. The death of Yuldashev has deprived the IMU of a leader credited with masterminding deadly attacks on military convoys and camps.
On the face of it at least, the prevailing conditions in Waziristan are favourable for Operation Rah-i-Nijaat. It is widely believed that the command structure of the TTP is in disarray. Its dreaded chief Baitullah Mehsud was killed in a US missile strike in August. The success of Operation Rah-i-Raast in Swat has also bolstered the morale of troops and inspired confidence among the people.
Isolating Baitullah’s group from other militant organisations active in the area was an important strategic consideration and perhaps the government has managed to do that vis-à-vis the Maulvi Nazir group in the Wana area in South Waziristan and Hafiz Gul Bahadur in North Waziristan. Past events reveal that some militants of the Nazir group were killed by pro-Baitullah fighters inside Mehsud territory, resulting in a bitter feud between the two groups. Hence winning over the Nazir group would not have been too difficult.
Another commander, Misbahuddin, leads the anti-Baitullah group. This group has assisted the law-enforcement agencies in pointing out militants belonging to the Baitullah group even in Islamabad and Karachi. All this is of course countered by what the military will be up against. There are two major forces which are likely to support the Baitullah group against the army — the Haqqani network, which is mostly active in Afghanistan fighting Nato forces, and the IMU.
To take care of this contingency, additional troops are said to have been deployed to occupy the strategic heights along the Mehsud territory’s border with North Waziristan besides the sealing of four access points in the battle zone from Razmak-Makeen, Wana-Ludda, Jandola-Sararogha and Kanigoram-Jandola. The Shawal mountains would thus be the only escape route available to the militants, but would effectively prove a dangerous one for them because of air and ground firepower.
In view of the operation that appears to have begun, the army placed two divisions consisting of 27,000 soldiers to take on an estimated 10,000 hard-core Taliban militants. The army has spent weeks cutting off militants’ escape routes and softening up targets in the region, using limited intelligence-led ground and air strikes.
It is believed that over the past three months the army has been drawing up plans, holding in-depth deliberations and carrying out critical analyses of past actions in the area. One issue that the army would have deliberated on is that of the peace accords drawn up in the past that only helped the militants gain respite from hostilities and a chance to reorganise. Another measure that has been taken to paralyse the militants in the area is the placement of an economic blockade since last June. This measure is said to have restricted supplies to the Taliban. It is hoped that it would further squeeze the fighting ability of the militants.
One of the fallouts of military operations is the plight of the internally displaced. In Waziristan it is estimated that tens of thousands of persons will be displaced due to the conflict. The IDPs would have to be given shelter and food in safer areas in Tank, Bannu and Dera Ismail Khan. The experience of handling a large number of internal refugees from Malakand division during Rah-i-Raast should come in handy in the care of those displaced by the Waziristan operation.
Weather conditions could play a part in hampering free movement. In the Mehsud area snowfall commences at the end of November. Logistic support to troops would then be restricted. Such weather conditions could be advantageous to the militants, who have intimate knowledge of the terrain and unfrequented routes.
The battle for Waziristan has been characterised as the ‘mother of all battles’. The battle will take place over a formidable terrain covering 2,420 square kilometres. It will take a huge human toll. With the start of the operation the Taliban will try to ignite fires elsewhere in Pakistan as they already appear to be doing. More suicide attacks can be expected in large cities like Peshawar, Islamabad, Rawalpindi, Lahore and Karachi. The epicentre of the Taliban and the Uzbek militants lies in South Waziristan. Thus for these militants it is a battle for existence.
The writer is a retired colonel.