The battle for Pakistan has finally started in earnest along the northwest frontier. After months of warning of an impending attack, the Pakistani military moved into South Waziristan this weekend to stamp out the Pakistani Taliban (TTP), which is allied with al Qaeda and allows the terrorist group to operate from the region. The Army bulked up the division entrusted with the task, supplementing it with troops and helicopters from North Waziristan, and local regiments from the Frontier Corps. The aim was to encircle and destroy the TTP in the southeastern third of Waziristan, where some 10,000 well-armed and battle-hardened militants are hiding.
But despite the reinforcements, the force trying to root out the entrenched militants is still not fully equipped or ready for mobile warfare. After more than eight years of involvement in the U.S.-led war against militants in Afghanistan, Pakistan still does not have all the weapons or assistance that it needs to do the job right.
The Pakistani forces are facing a more desperate and dangerous TTP. Since the powerful TTP chieftain Baitullah Mehsud was killed by a U.S. drone strike in August, the movement’s new leaders have endeavored to establish their own credentials. Their attacks — such as those on the general headquarters of the Army in Rawalpindi and on police offices in different cities in the Pakistani heartland — have become more audacious and open.
The TTP-al Qaeda militancy has also become more dangerous due to the active participation of Punjabi terrorist groups. In years past, these Islamist extremists operated under the auspices of Inter-Services Intelligence, Pakistan’s powerful military spy agency, fighting against Indians in Kashmir. Now, following Pakistan’s attempt at reconciliation with India over Kashmir, they have gone rogue. The Army lacks the capacity and willingness to open a new front in Punjab, where the militants are based in small towns and some cities. But it can do much damage to the Taliban-al Qaeda nexus in South Waziristan.
The Army has attempted to stop the anti-TTP operation from becoming an all-out tribal feud, though. Following the pattern of the offensives into Swat and Malakand earlier this summer, it encouraged neutral Mehsud tribesmen to leave the battle area. Thousands of internal refugees moved south last week, as the Pakistan Air Force pounded targets with F-16s and other aircraft to prepare the ground for the Army assault. Given the complex terrain, it is not clear how successful those bomb runs have been. If the ground offensive slows down over the next few days, it will signal that the militants have dug deep into the mountains and will exact a heavy toll on advancing forces. Some of them, including al Qaeda elements, might even head into Afghanistan to regroup, buying off the area’s Wazir and Bhittani tribesmen along the way. If the going is easier, then it is likely that the al Qadea and the TTP leadership has slipped away to seek refuge in northeastern Afghanistan, leaving behind booby traps and mines and a rearguard to fight against the invading Army.
Co-opting some of the Mehsud was a smart move, but it meant the Army lost the element of surprise. It will have to decide this war by sheer force of will and firepower, enduring heavy losses. And even if it wins the ground battle and occupies TTP territory, it might end up being a short-lived win. The Army is not trained or equipped to “hold” the area. There is no civilian force to police the territory, nor is there a judiciary to provide good governance; indeed, over the past eight years, Pakistan’s government has failed to provide itself with anything other than military solutions to such problems. Both ousted autocrat Gen. Pervez Musharraf and the current government (which has retained the general’s centralized powers) have entirely failed to strengthen their civilian capacity.
The United States too, has failed, most spectacularly in its inability to engage broadly with the Pakistani people, choosing instead to deal with one person or a small group of powerful players at the center. It thus lost its ability to gain public support in Pakistan for the fight against terrorism and militancy. The huge contretemps in Pakistan over the Kerry-Lugar bill has further undermined Washington’s efforts to generate good will, and the Amy’s public rebuke of the bill has only added to the mistrust between these two wary allies.
The Pakistani Army’s wariness should not surprise us. Though American taxpayers have given Pakistan nearly $11 billion to cover the costs of its military operations since 2002, Washington has withheld the latest U.S. equipment from Pakistan. U.S. officials wring their hands when asked about more helicopters and gunships, for instance, explaining that sending the latest and unfamiliar U.S. equipment to Pakistan would entail introducing new maintenance and logistical problems. Thus, the only major sources of helicopters to match Pakistan’s inventory of Chinese aircraft are the Eastern European states and Russia. (Fears that Pakistan might divert these weapons system to the Indian border could be met by providing helicopters under renewable leases.)
This severely constrains Pakistan’s ability to traverse the mountains in Waziristan, where the average height is 8,500 feet and roads are few and far between. Pakistan’s land forces, meanwhile, go into battle with half-flak jackets and the Frontier Corps’ Scouts still traipse around in “chappals,” open-toed sandals, in the rough and cold terrain of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. The Army also lacks the capability of tracking or jamming satellite phones used by the militants.
As the Pakistani military faces such logistical obstacles, militants and their supporters in Punjab will continue to terrorize the public. They will also attempt to unbalance the military and police forces in the hinterland with sporadic attacks. But they face a resolute military that is now finally determined to take the fight to the militants and fight its own fight.
The United States ought to help Pakistan with this endeavor, finding and delivering urgently the equipment that Pakistan needs to fight its own battle for survival, beginning in the mountains of South Waziristan. Time is short. Soon, winter will descend on the border region, and even though South Waziristan doesn’t usually get heavy snows except on the peaks, the winter is very cold and will make an extended battle harder to sustain. We should know in the next week how this war for Pakistan in the wilds of South Waziristan will turn out.
Shuja Nawaz is director of the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center. This essay was previously published in Foreign Policy as “How to Help Pakistan Win This Fight.”