Everything seems to be tentative about the Pakistan Army’s Rah e Nijat (Path to Salvation) operation. It was launched after several months of dithering and carried out after the Army cut deals with two powerful Taliban warlords. Even now, it is not clear as to whether the Army launched the operation to salvage its wounded pride after the recent Taliban attack on the General Headquarters at Rawalpindi, or it is acting under American pressure. Or, that it has now finally come to believe that Pakistan’s deliverance lies in abandoning the sponsorship of terrorist groups.
At the start of the operation, the Pakistan Army chief General Pervez Ashfaq Kayani has tried to wean away the Mehsud tribe from the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan by appealing to their patriotism. He can be forgiven for his caution. You don’t make war with your people lightly, especially if they happen to be Mehsuds who have in the past several years compelled the Pakistan Army to sue for peace thrice, and in the past century given great grief to a succession of armies.
Reasonable people will agree that the operation is truly Pakistan’s path to salvation. For years now the writ of the state has ceased to run in large parts of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). Craven peace deals with various Taliban factions have ensured that while Pakistan’s garrisons in towns like Razmak, Wana and Miramshah remained untouched, the surrounding country-side fell under the control of the Taliban.
No war goes according to plan. Most likely this war, too, will end up with unanticipated twists and turns. But the goal that the world community seeks is the destruction of the Taliban as a whole. That is where there are worries about the Pakistani action. Last year a similar operation was launched against Baitullah Mehsud and then called off suddenly without any explanation.
This time, too, there are questions about the Pakistani goals. They have, for example, made peace with two major Taliban factions led by Maulvi Nazir and Hafiz Gul Bahadur and ignored the Haqqani network which has been operating out of North Waziristan for close to a decade now. As is well known, the Pakistani authorities retain close links with the Haqqanis — Jalaluddin and his son Sirajuddin — who were involved in the Kabul bombing of the Indian embassy last year.
If the deals are tactical — aimed at keeping these powerful warlords out of the battle temporarily — they are understandable. But if they are aimed at destroying the anti-Pakistani Taliban, even while preserving the others as part of the Pakistan Army’s “strategic” depth, then we have reasons for concern.
The US cannot be too happy about these deals because it knows that nearly fifty percent of the Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders it has killed through drone strikes were in the areas controlled by Maulvi Nazir and Hafiz Gul Bahadur. As for the Haqqanis, they lead the most effective Taliban forces operating against the US in Afghanistan.
The Pakistan Army has to beware that it does not become the Taliban’s “strategic depth”. The Taliban of today are not those of 2001. The war they have fought for the last decade has, if anything, deepened their fanaticism and hatred of the US and the West. They no longer require the services of the ISI to lead them into battle as they once did. Not only are they a much more seasoned fighting force, one that is deeply intertwined with the Al Qaeda, they have also expanded their sway across large parts of Pakistan which was not the case earlier.
The recent attacks in Lahore and at the GHQ indicate that there is very little wriggle room left for the Pakistan Army and establishment. The recent spate of terrorist attacks in the Pakistan Punjab have showed that the Taliban have the capacity to attack at will across urban centres of Pakistan’s heartland. It also indicated that the outfit had developed links with the so-called Punjabi Taliban — the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, Jaish-e-Muhammad and the Lashkar-e-Tayyeba. These organisations have in their own way eaten away at the vitals of the state.
Despite a spate of terrorist attacks, some whose authorship the Pakistani Taliban has openly acknowledged, there are people ready to point fingers at India or the US. Last week in the wake of the Taliban attack on three police targets in Lahore, the city’s police commissioner Khushro Pervez declared, “The enemy has engaged us in the North West Frontier Province and other areas… There is a lot of evidence showing the involvement of a neighbouring country.” Interior Minister Rehman Malik, too, hinted at the Indian connection. Important sections of Pakistan remain in denial about their predicament.
Savage terrorist attacks have hurt Pakistan grievously. The country is stunned and confused. The reason for this is that its leaders, political and military, are not willing to change the discourse of jihad that they encouraged for the past two decades, leave alone dismantle the jihadi armies that have a free run of the country.
Meanwhile there are also military questions about the ability of the Pakistan Army to prevail in Waziristan. Pakistan has a competent and capable army, but one devoid of any counter-insurgency experience. This was evident in its actions against the Baloch separatists in 2006 and, recently in Swat where it used air and artillery strikes liberally.
In Waziristan, too, Pakistan is relying on aerial bombardment to overwhelm the Mehsuds. This will only result in great destruction and a hardening of attitudes, without any diminution of Taliban military capabilities. This has been the experience of air power since the Great Blitz of London in 1940 and most recently in Gaza.
Perhaps the most accurate instruments of aerial bombardment are the American Predator and Reaper drones being used in Afghanistan and the tribal areas of Pakistan. Yet a New America Foundation analysis released in Washington this week suggests that of the 1000 or so people killed in drone strikes since 2006, as many as 320 or one-third, have been innocent civilians. You can make your own back-of-the-envelope calculation about the number of civilians being killed by the less accurate aerial bombardment currently under way in Waziristan.
Islamabad is using air and artillery fire-power to minimise the use of boots on the ground. But insurgencies can never be defeated this way. Mountains and insurgencies gobble up human resources in large quantities — camps and supply lines need to be guarded, convoys, administrative offices and centres protected. Search and destroy operations require ridgelines and passes to be held and so on. As of now the Pakistani strategy seems to be to capture Hakimullah Mehsud’s hometown Kotkai, probably flatten his home and declare victory.
If that is so, then it is going to be a much longer war than what the Pakistan GHQ has anticipated.
This article appeared in Mail Today October 22, 2009