Pakistan’s slow path to salvation in Waziristan

October 29, 2009

Pakistan’s militants have unleashed a guerrilla war in cities across the country in retaliation for a military offensive against them in their South Waziristan stronghold. But while they have seized all the attention with their massive bomb and gun attacks, what about the offensive itself  in their mountain redoubt ?

Nearly two weeks into Operation Rah-e-Nijat, or Path of Salvation,  it is hard to make a firm assessment of which way the war is going, given that information is hard to come by and this may yet be still the opening stages of a long and difficult campaign.

Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan whose uncharacteristically low profile over the past few weeks has spawned speculation, said at the weekend that it was too early to make a call on the operation. and that he had asked his intelligence officers and they had no definitive information. Pakistan’s Dawn quotes him as telling reporters in Washington “‘it’ll take a while before we know whether the enemy they’re fighting has been dispersed or destroyed or some mixture of the two.”

Looked at in another way and judging purely by what has not happened so far, this hasn’t shaped up into the mother-of-all battles that many had predicted it to be. No major ambushes or a tribal uprising has happened as the Pakistani army inches deeper into the Taliban mini-state,  taking the village of Kotkai, the home of Pakistani Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud.

As the BBC and the military-focused Strategy Page blog note, the Pakistani army appears to be moving slowly and deliberately.  “This is a campaign of small battles. The soldiers are advancing from three directions, often along a single road,”  the Strategy Page  says.

“The army is advancing slowly, to insure that the troops win all these little battles. It’s important for troop morale that the tribesmen do not pull off many of their traditional ambushes and surprise attacks that have, for centuries, killed and demoralized invaders. This has largely been successful, with one soldier dying for every ten or so Islamic radical fighters killed.”

Some people think the Mehsud fighters are doing  a tactical retreat to draw the Pakistani military deeper into South Waziristan, an arid land of mountains, dried-up creeks, sparse forests and rocky plains. Local administration officials have told the BBC that the Mehsud fighters are not fighting by holding ground against the military. Instead they are ceding territory to the security forces and then counter-attacking when the military starts to secure the area.

The Pakistani offensive holds lesson for U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan, according to a presentation by Frederick Kagan and colleagues Reza Jan and Charlie Szrom at the American Enterprise Institute. The preparatory work that went into the fighting, especially the deals struck with surrounding tribal groups offers a paradigm for the coalition forces in Afghanistan, the Washington Post reports Kagan and his associates as saying in their 37-page analysis. Efforts were aimed at either getting support for the move against the traditional Mehsud area, where the Pakistani Taliban  was strongest, or having groups agree to refrain from joining the fight on the Taliban side.

Pakistan, in turn, is also being helped by the United States, discreetly, as it supplies the military with drone images of the battlefield. The  intelligence and surveillance video from armed Predator aircraft to the Pakistani army marks the deepest American involvement yet in a Pakistani military campaign. (L.A. Times)

The United States, which has long pushed Pakistan to take on the militants has rushed hundreds of millions of dollars in arms, equipment and sophisticated sensors to Pakistani forces in recent months. (NYT) . Pentagon officials have rushed spare parts for helicopter gunships,night vision goggles and body armour to the fight.  The one thing Pakistan has insisted on is that the assistance remain discreet.  There should be “no American face” on their war, officials say.

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