Talk of Waziristan offensive picks up in Pakistan

October 2, 2009

According to Dawn newspaper, the Pakistan Army is poised to launch a major military operation in South Waziristan, stronghold of the Pakistani Taliban.

It quotes senior military and security officials as saying that the army would launch what it called “the mother of all battles” in the coming days.

“If we don’t take the battle to them, they will bring the battle to us,” it quotes a senior military official as saying of the militants. “The epicentre of the behemoth called the Taliban lies in South Waziristan, and this is where we will be fighting the toughest of all battles.”

“For three months, the military has been drawing up plans, holding in-depth deliberations and carrying out studies on past expeditions to make what seems to be the last grand stand against Pakistani Taliban in the Mehsud heartland a success,” it says.

“We are ready. The environment is ready,” it quotes the senior officer as saying. “It will not be a walkover. This is going to be casualty-intensive hard fighting. The nation will have to bear the pain,” said another officer.

The Pakistan Army is not saying anything in public, and information about its operations in Waziristan is hard to come by since the area is so remote and inaccessible.

But any ground offensive into South Waziristan would be a major escalation in the Pakistan Army’s battle against the Pakistani Taliban, dwarfing its operation earlier this year to clear militants out of the Swat valley northwest of Islamabad.

The army has been reluctant to send ground troops into South Waziristan, instead aiming to seal off the area and rely on airstrikes to target militants. But talk of a possible ground offensive has risen after two bomb attacks last weekend raised fears the Pakistani Taliban were recovering from the death of their leader, Baitullah Mehsud, in a U.S. missile strike in August.

Interior Minister Rehman Malik told me earlier this week that Pakistan was considering whether it needed to launch a full-scale military operation against the Pakistani Taliban, who he described as “the front face of al Qaeda”.

And according to Dawn, “Thousands of army soldiers – two divisions – are now sitting on the fringes of the Mehsud mainland waiting for orders from the high command to move in.”

South Waziristan is believed to be heavily defended; it is larger than Swat and more inaccessible. Its people have always been hostile to outsiders, unlike Swat which was once a tourist paradise before it was overrun by Taliban militants. So any ground offensive would likely cause heavy casualties.

The general view has also been that the army has been running out of time to launch a ground offensive before the winter snows make operations extremely hard and would defer any big moves until the spring. That could still be the case, if it judges that a combination of air attacks and missile strikes by U.S. drones – the latest reported casualty from these was Uzbek militant leader Tahir Yuldashev – is enough to keep the militants at bay and stop them from bombing Pakistani cities.

But Malik said Pakistan could even launch an operation in winter if needs be. “Even in the winter, even before starting winter … if we feel appropriate that this operation is unavoidable, yes, we will consider that,” he said.

The Pakistan Army has years of experience of fighting in winter conditions – along with the Indian Army it became a world expert in high-altitude warfare in the conflict over the Siachen region which erupted in 1984, and it also has troops posted in the mountains along the Line of Control dividing Kashmir – although there has been a ceasefire there since 2003.

So it is not out of the question for the Pakistan Army to launch an offensive that drags into the winter. According to the Dawn report, temperatures in Waziristan can drop to 20 degrees below freezing, with snow setting in towards the end of November — fairly brutal conditions for an offensive, but less hostile in terms of weather than it has had to deal with in Siachen over the years.  And Dawn quotes military strategists as saying the weather problem would hit the militants more than the troops, although the former would have the advantage of knowing their terrain.

In its battle against Islamist militants, Pakistan has concentrated on tackling the Pakistani Taliban, which threaten the country directly. That has annoyed the United States, which wants Pakistan to move as well against militants fighting western troops in Afghanistan, including the Afghan Taliban which it says are based in Quetta, in Baluchistan province. India is pressing for action against militant groups based in Pakistan’s Punjab province, including the Lashkar-e-Taiba militant group it blames for last year’s attack on Mumbai.

But for now, attention within Pakistan seems to be turning to Waziristan for what could turn out to be the toughest military campaign in the whole of the Afghanistan and Pakistan theatre.

(File photos:Pakistani soldier in Swat; Pakistan army chief General Ashfaq Kayani with U.S. General David Petraeus; Taliban fighters; author in Siachen)

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