Red agencies/ districts controlled by the Taliban; purple is defacto control; yellow is under threat.
The Taliban insurgency in the Northwest Frontier Province intensifies as a large force of Taliban fighters captured a company of Pakistani soldiers in South Waziristan. The Taliban captured “over 100 security forces personnel after intercepting a military convoy in the Mehsud-dominated tribal area,” Dawn reported. The Taliban have claimed over 300 Pakistani soldiers were captured by a large Taliban force near Luddah, which is about 25 miles north of Wana, but the highest estimate given by Pakistani sources is 130. “The Taliban had also impounded 17 trucks which were carrying troops,” Pakistani sources told Dawn. “Nine of the hostages were reported to be officers including a colonel.”
Maj. Gen. Waheed Arshad, the Pakistani military spokesman, initially claimed the troops sought shelter in a valley during a storm, and contact was lost. “There is no suggestion of kidnapping or fighting,” said Arshad at the initial reports of the capture of the Pakistani soldiers. Arshad later backtracked and told CBS News the soldiers have been freed by the Taliban and the “situation has almost been resolved.”
But there is no indication the troops have been freed. “Intelligence officials in South Waziristan said the militants had taken the soldiers to different hideouts in the mountains,” Reuters reported. Both Dawn and Reuters have reported the Pakistani government has sent emissaries to negotiate with the Taliban to secure the conditions of the release. A Pakistani security official told Dawn that “contacts had been established with the Mehsud jirga to approach militant commander Baitullah Mehsud at the earliest and help secure the safe release of the security personnel.” Baitullah Mehsud is one of the most the powerful Taliban commanders in South Waziristan; it is estimated he commands upwards of 30,000 well-trained fighters.
One issue that is not being discussed is both the skill and size of military units needed to force a company of Pakistani troops to surrender with no violence. A senior US intelligence official told The Long War Journal that this Pakistani unit was an experienced regular army unit, not a paramilitary unit such as the Levies or Frontier Constables. “This was a Punjabi company, loyal to Musharraf, which conducts operations against the Taliban when needed,” the official stated.
Dawn provides some hints on how the troops were captured.
The incident occurred following a verbal argument between officers and some militants. “Not a single shot was fired.” The official account was confirmed by locals who said the militants had stopped the military convoy at four places before taking the drastic action. One security official said the militants had objected to the military’s attempt to establish pickets on the route of the convoy.
Based on this account, which was given to Dawn by both South Waziristan locals and Pakistani security officials, the Pakistani convoy was well aware of the rising tensions in the region. With the convoy having been stopped at four checkpoints and there being arguments with the Taliban, the Pakistani troops were not taken unawares.
The Taliban either prepared for the operation in advance, or quickly assembled and planned the operation. The Taliban had enough foot soldiers with sufficient heavy weapons placed in prepared fighting positions to impress upon the regular Pakistani army officers to surrender without firing a shot. Depending on the terrain and available armaments to the Taliban, perhaps 500 to 1,000 Taliban fighters were on hand to conduct the operation. As we have noted in the past, the Taliban are organizing into well-trained military formations.
The Pakistani troops also surrendered while knowing that 19 soldiers were currently in the custody of Baitullah Mehsud’s Taliban. One of those soldiers was brutally beheaded by a 12-year-old boy. This gruesome acted was videotaped and distributed to the media as a warning.
Despite the repeated attacks against Pakistani troops, the beheadings of captured personnel and the continual kidnappings, the Pakistani government is still interested in preserving the failed “peace accords” signed with the Taliban in 2005 and 2006. This is clear from a statement made by Dawn‘s source. “[The military] have been told to establish immediate contact with the militant commander [Baitullah Mehsud.] On our part the Sara Rogha agreement [the South Waziristan Accord] is intact.”
Baitullah, who is wanted for his involvement with a suicide bombing campaign in the spring of 2007, has been behind many of the Taliban attacks against the military in South Waziristan and sends his Taliban into Afghanistan to attack NATO and Afghan forces and civilians. Baitullah has also sheltered al Qaeda operatives and has established al Qaeda training camps in South Waziristan. Yet the Pakistani government still seeks to negotiate with Mehsud and others committing violence against the state.