Features | Security | South Asia

The Battle for Waziristan

Pakistan’s military claims it is in control as it battles militants in South Waziristan. But a media blackout and a string of suicide bombings has raised questions about how decisive the offensive has really been, Ghulam Ghaus reports.

By Ghulam Ghaus for

Helicopter gunships buzz overhead as we rest inside a mud-walled house in Kanigurum, in Pakistan’s South Waziristan. We’ve just been told to come indoors because it isn’t safe outside in the compound–Taliban snipers could be anywhere in this militant hotspot.

We’ve been led here in a pick-up truck by Pakistani Army Brigadier Tayyeb, who has agreed to show us some of the arms and ammunition seized during the Army’s recent ongoing offensive in the region. As we wait for another official we’re jolted by the rumble of a few rounds of heavy artillery.

A local military official arrives, and is quick to tell us that South Waziristan has been infiltrated by foreign militants, claiming there are about 1500 foreign militants associated with al-Qaeda offering assistance to the local Mehsud militants. Some of the firearms and ammunition that were seized in the nearby village of Shelwasti are laid out on the floor for us to see, and we are also presented with the photo pages of passports purportedly belonging to the foreigners.

‘They’re mostly Uzbeks, but some of them are also from Arab countries and even from Europe,’ says Army spokesman Major General Athar Abbas Abbas. ‘Right now, we’re facing resistance from a total of about 8000 militants in South Waziristan. They prefer using guerrilla ambush techniques and suicide bombings.’

Athar Abbas says the military offensive has, so far, been a success and claims more than 80 percent of South Waziristan has been cleared of militants. He adds that all major roads and major population centres are under Army control.

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In mid-October, more than 30,000 Pakistani troops were dispatched to South Waziristan to battle militants targeting Pakistan (militants based in North Waziristan, for their part, have been focusing their efforts against NATO troops in Afghanistan).

Brigadier (Rtd) Mehmood Shah, a military analyst and former officer with the Pakistani Army, agrees that the operation is almost complete. ‘The militants have been dislodged and there’s no need to try something else,’ he says, arguing that ground-based operations and not drone attacks are the key to beating militants.

Yet such confidence has been undermined both by the secrecy that has surrounded the operation and militants’ continued ability to execute attacks on a large scale. On New Year’s Day, for example, a suicide bomber killed almost 100 civilians attending a volleyball match in Lakki Marwat, on the outskirts of South Waziristan.

Furthermore, journalists are carefully monitored by military officials in the region, and are often shepherded to the ‘safest’ conflict zones to ensure that the information shared is carefully managed. Yet despite such efforts, the Army had no way of hiding the series of suicide bombings that ripped through several large cities in Pakistani late last year, with blasts in Peshawar, Islamabad, Rawalpindi, Lahore and Multan claiming hundreds of lives between them.

In the last three months of 2009, more than 600 civilians were killed and thousands more injured, mostly in suicide blasts conducted by bombers trained by Qari Hussain, a top lieutenant of the Taliban militant umbrella group, Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan.

However, ‘despite Pakistani security forces’ control in Sararogha, Makeen and Laddah (the Taliban and al-Qaeda strongholds in South Waziristan), there’s no evidence of killing or capturing of the top Taliban leadership in South Waziristan,’ Rehmat Mehsud, a regular reporter from the region, says.

In many ways it should hardly be surprising that the military is struggling to exert control over the area. Waziristan is a barren, mountainous terrain of rocky ridges and dry river beds inhabited by 800,000 tribal Pushtuns living in mostly in mud-walled homes. Some are studded with pebbles to help them withstand machinegun fire, while the more luxurious brick houses of the wealthier tribal leaders have multi-story towers with firing slits.

Militants are attracted to the region because of the remoteness and ruggedness both of its geography and its people; after the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, thousands of Afghan and foreign militants took refuge in Waziristan. For many analysts of developments along the Afghan-Pakistan border, this is, therefore, the global headquarters for Islamic Jihadists.

‘Thousands of Arab, al-Qaeda, Punjabi Taliban and foreign militants like Uzbeks and Chechens have escaped to other parts of Pakistan like North Waziristan and Kurram,’ a tribal elder says on the condition of anonymity. ‘Some of the Uzbek and Arab al-Qaeda fighters have taken refuge in North Waziristan under the patronage of Hafiz Gul Bahadur,’ he adds referring to another Pakistani militant group.

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According to some US intelligence agency sources, North Waziristan is also believed to be the headquarters of the Haqqani network, a militant organization responsible for attacks aimed at NATO and US forces operating in Afghanistan, a suggestion apparently borne out by the recent deadly attack on a CIA base in Afghanistan’s Khost Province, which borders North Waziristan.

However, Brigadier Shah says the military offensive in South Waziristan should not be equated with the situation of its northern counterpart. ‘It shouldn’t be compared with what NATO is doing in Afghanistan,’ he says, adding that the operation in the south can’t be seen as a question of ‘defeating’ or ‘conquering’ the enemy because it’s an internal matter, not a war between two countries.

Tribal leaders this reporter has spoken with, though, remain unconvinced the large-scale ground offensive being conducted by Pakistani forces is the solution to militancy in the tribal area and say it is unlikely to bring the desired stability to the region. Indeed, some even voiced more support for the controversial drone attacks, although they say the reasoning behind using drones should be better explained.

Meanwhile, the bleeding of militants from South Waziristan to its northern neighbour suggests this ‘internal’ conflict has implications for broader regional counter-militant efforts, while the risks of a destabilized Pakistan are clear.

‘The problems in South Waziristan were like a cancer,’ says Peshawar-based commentator Syed Irfan Ashraf. ‘But when the military tried to cure the disease, it ended up spreading across the country rather than healing.’