Pakistan’s military operation in Waziristan

June 24, 2009

In a world used to watching war played out on television, and more recently to following protests in Iran via Twitter and YouTube, the Pakistan Army’s impending military offensive in South Waziristan on the Afghan border is probably not getting the attention it deserves — not least but because the operation is shrouded in secrecy.

Yet the offensive has the potential to be a turning point in the battle against the Taliban which began with the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. Many Taliban and their al Qaeda allies fled Afghanistan to Pakistan’s tribal areas after the U.S. invasion – the CIA said this month it believed Osama bin Laden was still hiding in Pakistan. The offensive in South Waziristan, designed to target Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud, would if successful deprive the Taliban and al Qaeda of what has been until now one of their safest boltholes.

Before the army launches a full-scale offensive, the United States appears to be stepping up missile strikes by unmanned aircraft to weaken the Pakistani Taliban –  an attack on Tuesday by a U.S. drone killed about 70 militants.  The attack, on a funeral for one of six militants killed in a similar strike earlier in the day, would appear to indicate increasing coordination between the United States and Pakistan, although Pakistan publicly condemns the drone operations. When the army does go in, it is likely to face intense fighting against Mehsud and his thousands of well-armed followers, who have had years to prepare defences.

The killing on Tuesday of Mehsud rival Qari Zainuddin has also encouraged speculation that the military is working hard on time-honoured tactics of divide and rule, by trying to find tribal leaders who will turn against Mehsud (the blog Changing up Pakistan has produced an excellent round-up of media reports on Zainuddin’s death). 

 If Pakistan’s military intelligence is indeed looking for allies, Zainuddin’s death might deter potential candidates - Mehsud has a reputation for being both clever and ruthless, and well capable of planning many steps ahead of the offensive he has long known is coming. Anyone who doubts the Taliban and al Qaeda’s capacity to plan ahead should remember that Afghan resistance leader Ahmad Shah Massoud was killed two days before 9/11 in what many analysts now see as a pre-emptive strike to undercut domestic support for U.S. retaliation for the attacks on New York and Washington. So be prepared for the unexpected.

But beyond the reports of drone attacks, the news of Zainuddin’s death, and the refugees streaming out of Waziristan, it is hard to know exactly what is going on there. 

“The truth is though little is known about what exactly is going on in South Waziristan Agency, who is fighting whom and why, and what is likely to happen in the days and weeks ahead,” Dawn newspaper says in an editorial. “What is clear so far is that the security forces are squeezing Baitullah Mehsud’s strongholds by cutting off the three main routes that lead to them and pounding targets from the air.”

What you do keep hearing is that the Pakistan Army — which has been accused in the past of on-again off-again operations in the tribal areas that only allowed the militants to get stronger — is absolutely serious about pressing on with an offensive against the Pakistani Taliban which began in the Swat valley and will now continue into Waziristan. 

One to follow closely — even without live TV or Twitter.

(Photos of Pakistani military in the Swat region)

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