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Waziristan: A Stygian Dark

First published in South Asia Intelligence Review (SAIR), Weekly Assessments & Briefings, Volume 8, No. 13, October 5, 2009

After months of ‘preparation’ – massive and often indiscriminate bombings in the region, as well as the massing of Forces, blockades and endless curfews – there are now credible reports that the Pakistan Army is poised to ‘storm’ the principal strongholds of the Islamist terrorist groupings affiliated to the al Qaeda – Taliban – Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan complex, in Waziristan. For months, now, Pakistani Air Force and artillery units, backed by US Predator strikes, have been hammering away at nebulous ‘targets’ in the region, and the Army now appears confident that ground troops can go into what has long been regarded as Pakistan’s “‘black hole’ for security and intelligence forces”.

But reports of an imminent ground campaign have already provoked political disquiet, with 19 Members of the National Assembly, including three Federal Ministers, elected from this region, submitting their resignations to Prime Minister Yusaf Raza Gilani on September 29, 2009 (their resignations have not been accepted, though they insist, “we do not consider ourselves as Parliamentarians anymore”). The resigning Parliamentarians have warned of a ‘serious backlash’, and one of them, Saleh Shah, has declared, “This will be a major blunder, which will invoke (sic) a serious reaction from the tribesmen.” Munir Aurakzai, the head of the Tribal Parliamentary Group, has noted that the ongoing aerial and artillery campaigns have already inflicted unbearable hardships on local tribesmen, who have “lost their properties and lives”, with “hundreds of thousands” displaced.

The enormity of the aerial campaign can be partially assessed by the sheer loss of life already inflicted – before a ground campaign has even been initiated. At least 3,228 persons, including 2,480 categorised as ‘militants’, 545 civilians and 203 Security Forces (SF) personnel have already been killed in 2009 (till October 2) in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, according to the South Asia Terrorism Portal database – with an overwhelming proportion of fatalities concentrated in the North and South Waziristan Agencies. These numbers may well be a severe under-estimate, with flows of information blocked off by denial of access to the media and other independent agencies. No verification of the categorisation of casualties is, of course, possible under the circumstances.

These fatalities add to at least 3,067 killed in 2008, including 1,709 ‘militants’, 1,116 civilians and 242 SF personnel – almost double the death count in 2007, when 1,681 persons, including 1,014 militants, 424 civilians and 243 SF personnel were killed in the region. In 2006, the death toll stood at 590 (337 ‘militants’, 109 civilians and 144 SF personnel).

As with the brutal and indiscriminate Swat campaigns, however, and in sharp contrast to the global response to the last stages of the Sri Lankan campaign against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the relentless and often indiscriminate killings in FATA have provoked no more than a deafening silence from the international community. The projected illusion is that this area is being targeted essentially as the ‘epicentre’ of the anti-Western al-Qaeda – Taliban combine, and that what is being done is no more than necessary.

Both assumptions are manifestly false. For one thing, the various protagonists in Waziristan, and in the wider FATA region, are fighting a murky war, often at cross purposes. US objectives are, of course, by far the most obvious here, and they coincide with the general perception of the area being targeted essentially to ‘neutralize’ the al Qaeda – Taliban combine. Indeed, if US assessments can be relied upon, US drone attacks in the region – comprising the largest proportion, by far of such attacks in Pakistan – have been exceptionally ‘efficient’ (Pakistani sources strongly contest these assessments and allege that the numbers of those killed is far greater, and that a much larger proportion is civilian). A study in The Long War Journal notes that, of 88 US strikes within Pakistan since 2004, 78 strikes (88.6 per cent) have hit targets in North (36 strikes) and South (42 strikes) Waziristan. Indeed, all of the 30 strikes since April 1, 2009, have been in Waziristan. The study claims high accuracy levels, with more than one in three strikes killing a High Value Target (HVT). Civilian casualties, moreover, “have remained very low”, though the study concedes that “it is difficult to determine the exact number of civilians killed” and that it uses “low-end estimates of casualties”. On this count, of the 979 fatalities since 2004, just 9.6 per cent have been “identified as civilians”.

A look at the targeted organisations, however, begins to reveal pernicious entanglements. The principal targets, in order of significance, include Baitullah Mehsud’s Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), an organisation that is being vigorously targeted by Pakistani Forces as well, since it turned ‘rogue’ after the Lal Masjid debacle in July 2007, and directed its ire against Islamabad. Baitullah Mehsud has, in fact, been one of the HVTs neutralised in a US Predator strike, and the leadership of the group is currently uncertain; Hakimullah Mehsud is said to have taken command, but is also widely believed to have been killed in a succession war with another of the contenders, Wali-ur-Rehman. Others in the run for the top position in the TTP include Maulvi Faqir Muhammad and Qari Hussain. The second in significance of the US targets has been Mullah Nazir, who operates across territories in South Waziristan – and who is regarded by Islamabad as an ‘ally’ in its war against ‘foreign terrorists’ including cadres of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan led by Tahir Yuldashev (currently rumoured to have been killed), which had taken to attacking Pakistan Army and Government officials since 2006, and which had aligned with the TTP. Third in line is the Haqqani network led by Jalaluddin Haqqani and his son Sirajuddin Haqqani, which has long operated as the Pakistani Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) cat’s paw in Afghanistan, and has mounted numberless attacks against International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and Afghan troops. The Haqqani network, in close coordination with the ISI, orchestrated the suicide bomb attack on India’s embassy at Kabul on July 7, 2008. A fourth target has been Abu Kasha al Iraqi, considered a key al Qaeda operative, and closely linked to the Taliban, whose Forces operate principally from Mir Ali in North Waziristan. With his Pakistani commanders, Abu Kasha has mounted repeated attacks against coalition Forces in Afghanistan. The last among the targets of priority has been Hafiz Gul Bahadur, the ‘supreme commander’ of the Taliban in North Waziristan, who is also closely linked with the Haqqani network. Bahadur has had a vacillating relationship with Islamabad, and has been party to various deals with state agencies, and is perceived as part of the ‘government camp’. He announced a cease fire on August 22, 2009, for the period of Ramadan, after which incidents in North Waziristan virtually ceased. Increasingly, several Punjab-based terrorist groupings, including Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) and Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) have established a significant presence across FATA. The last two among these have continuing linkages with state agencies, particularly strong in the case of the Lashkar-e-Taiba, which orchestrated what is widely acknowledged as the ISI-backed attack in Mumbai on November 26, 2008.

Crucially, Islamabad’s orientation to these various groups has been defined exclusively by the degree to which they have remained loyal to Pakistan’s objectives in destabilizing Kabul, or to which they have turned ‘renegade’ and attacked targets within Pakistan. The US and Pakistan, consequently, act at cross purposes with several of these and the many lesser groups operating in Waziristan. North Waziristan borders Afghanistan, and it is from here that the ‘Taliban’ – drawn from combinations of the various groups operating from this region – have mounted attacks on troops of the US-led ISAF and of the Afghan Army. This is the area over which Pakistan and the US have had a long and acrimonious dispute in the past, with continuous cross-border infiltrations being blamed on the ‘laxity’ and collusion of Pakistani border guards.

Islamabad has secured a great transfusion of confidence from the killing of Baitullah Mehsud in a Predator strike, and the probable death of his designated successor, Hakimullah Mehsud, and this will contribute at least in part to the decision to initiate ground operations in Waziristan. There is, however, a substantial residual uncertainty in the Army command. Lt. Gen. Nadeem Ahmed, the Chairman of the Special Support Group, on August 18, 2009, noted that, while Baitullah Mehsud had died, ‘his system was still functioning’, and that the current objective was to “choke off supplies” to the Taliban, and employ aerial operations to create the “right conditions” for ground operations, something that could “take months” and could possibly go beyond the coming winter. Critically, Islamabad continues to direct its campaigns in Waziristan against the TTP, while US interests remain much wider, targeting the complex combine of Islamist terrorist groupings operating from this region.

While aerial strikes have certainly inflicted some damage on the radical Islamist networks in Waziristan, it would be a mistake to underestimate their surviving capacities. Indeed, even in neighbouring Swat, where Pakistan is claiming a decisive victory, the combination of aerial and massive ground operations failed to neutralize the leadership and main body of radical forces in the region, simply ‘squeezing’ them out into other areas, where they will inevitably recover and consolidate once again. This is what projected ground operations are expected to do in Waziristan as well. While some stiff resistance from fortified TTP positions can be expected in initial phases, it is clear that, with the enormous lead time available, most commanders will already have planned out their escape routes and future hideouts, initially, most likely, in the Dawar area of North Waziristan, the Upper Orakzai Agency and the Pashtun areas of Balochistan. Eventually, the battle will have to be extended into the Orakzai, Mohmand and Bajaur Agencies of FATA, and into Darra Adam Khel and beyond in the NWFP, where the ‘miscreants’ from FATA find frequent refuge. The sheer scope of such a campaign, which will inevitably crystallize the opposition to what will be perceived by the Islamists as a US-Pakistani campaign, will challenge the Pakistan Army – already overextended in campaigns in NWFP and Balochistan – to unprecedented limits.

It is, of course, the case that US and Pakistani efforts in Waziristan have the capacities to force radical strategic and tactical adaptations on the Islamist militants, but they cannot inflict a comprehensive and irreversible defeat – at least in part because Pakistan’s own orientation to many of the groups remains deeply ambivalent. Till a sufficiency of Force and will have been secured – something that does not appear on the current bill of fare – the protagonists in Waziristan will remain locked in struggle in the blinding darkness of deceit, betrayal and bloody violence. Worse, it is the wretched people of Waziristan who are subjected to the greatest and combined ferocity of a multiplicity of aggressors, none of whom appears to regard their security or well being as a significant objective in their campaigns.