Analysis: Waziristan operation to focus on Baitullah Mehsud

As the Pakistani military gears up for what appears to be a major operation into the Taliban stronghold of South Waziristan, the government and military are signaling that the operation is limited to taking out Baitullah Mehsud. The three other powerful Taliban groups based in North and South Waziristan do not appear to be on the Pakistan Army's target list.

The South Waziristan operation, called Rah-e-Nijat, or the Way of Salvation, is already underway, according to the Pakistani military's top spokesman. The military has been positioning troops and armor in the neighboring district of Tank while conducting artillery and airstrikes into regions run by Baitullah Mehsud, the overall commander of the Pakistani Taliban. The main roads in the region are also being blocked to cut off supplies to Baitullah's forces. Further north the military is battling the Taliban in the Jani Khel and Baka Khel regions in Bannu, which borders North Waziristan.

Yesterday the Pakistani military announced that it has received orders to take on Baitullah's powerful Taliban faction in South Waziristan.

"The Army has received requisite orders from the government," Major General Athar Abbas said yesterday during a briefing in Rawalpindi. "Necessary steps and measures are being taken by the military to launch the operation."

Abbas was clear that the focus of the operation will be Baitullah Mehsud. Not mentioned were Taliban commanders Mullah Nazir and Hafiz Gul Bahadar and the powerful Haqqani network.

"The government has taken a principled decision to launch a military operation against Baitullah and his network," Abbas stated. "It would be premature to discuss tactics or when we will target the person in question," Abbas said, continuing to focus on Baitullah specifically.

Baitullah Mehsud is only part of the problem

While Baitullah and his network of fighters and suicide bombers have wreaked havoc on Pakistan, and his tribal areas have served as a major safe haven for al Qaeda, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, and a host of Punjabi and Kashmiri terror groups, he is but part of the problem in the war-torn country.

Nazir, Bahadar, and the Haqqanis each host their share of training camps and safe houses for al Qaeda and allied terror movements. The groups also conduct cross-border attacks against Coalition and Afghan forces in Afghanistan. Nazir and Bahadar's forces largely fight in the southern and southeastern provinces of Helmand, Kandahar, Zabul, Ghazni, and Uruzgan, Afghanistan, while the Haqqanis are active in Khost, Paktika. and Paktia. Siraj Haqqani, the son of famed mujahedeen commander Jalaluddin, is one of the most wanted men in Afghanistan, as his network has been behind some of the most deadly attacks in the country.

Nazir and Bahadar have formed an alliance with Baitullah at the behest of Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Omar, Osama bin Laden, and Jalaluddin Haqqani. In February, Nazir, Bahadar, and Baitullah formed the United Mujahideen Council and vowed to pool forces to fight the Pakistani state if the military moved into the tribal areas. The council also agreed to continue the jihad in Afghanistan and strike at the US and India.

Nazir and Bahadar are considered "pro-government Taliban" by the Pakistani military and government because they have opposed fighting the Pakistani military and prefer to focus their attention of Afghanistan. The military has cut peace deals with Nazir and Bahadar in the past. These deals are still in effect despite the formation of the United Mujahideen Council and the declaration against the Pakistani state. The Pakistani military also openly supported Nazir as he sought to eject elements of the Islamic Jihad Union, an Uzbek terror group, from his tribal areas.

The Haqqanis have been virtually untouchable. The group operates openly in North Waziristan and runs a network of madrassas in the region.

And the Haqqanis are widely supported by the Pakistani military. In May 2008, General Ashfaq Kayani, Pakistan's senior military officer, was overheard by the CIA referring to Jalaluddin Haqqani as "a strategic asset." The CIA also found evidence linking the Pakistani military and intelligence service to last summer's suicide attack on the Indian Embassy in Kabul.

The Haqqanis are well respected by all of the Pakistani and Afghan Taliban groups. The Haqqanis have mediated tribal disputes between Baitullah and Nazir and Bahadar, as well as settled the contentious issue between Nazir and the Uzbeks.

The Pakistani military is reportedly seeking to cut deals with Nazir, Bahadar, and the Haqqanis to keep them on the sideline as the Army takes on Baitullah's forces in the upcoming operation. Frantic negotiations are underway with Nazir and Bahadar, both members of the Wazir tribe.

"We have been shuttling between the Taliban and the government for three days to reach some sort of an understanding to keep the Taliban from joining Baitullah," Waziri tribal elders told Daily Times.

A Baitullah-only operation is a half measure

While taking on Baitullah Mehsud in South Waziristan is a welcome sign that the government seeks to sustain the offensive against the Taliban which began in late April in Dir, Buner, and Swat, a failure to act against Bahadar, Nazir, and the Haqqanis will leave the Taliban with much of their forces intact. And al Qaeda will remain secure in their havens in North and South Waziristan.

The Taliban warlords may also provide Baitullah and his forces a safe haven if he refuses to commit all of his forces to oppose the Pakistani military in South Waziristan, just as Mullah Fazlullah's forces conduct a tactical retreat in the Swat Valley.

Baitullah, his leaders, and a select group of fighters could take shelter in the Haqqani areas in North Waziristan. Baitullah could also transit the neighboring tribal areas and head across the border into southern or southeastern Afghanistan and wait out the Pakistani Army, which by all reports does not have the desire to remain in the tribal areas.

A failure to tackle these commanders also leaves the military exposed to a potential counterattack. Bahadar, the Haqqanis, and Nazir are estimated to have more than 50,000 forces combined. If they decide to honor their agreement with Baitullah under the United Mujahideen Council, these forces could join the estimated 30,000 under Baitullah's command, and slug it out with the Pakistani Army in rugged, mountainous terrain that is well suited to favor the defenders.

The military may be left with no choice but to fight Bahadar and Nazir if they decide to honor their agreement with Baitullah. One of the two leaders has indicated they may be willing to take on the Army. Last week, Bahadar sent hundreds of his fighters to battle the Army in the Jani Khel region of Bannu.

In addition to the forces potentially available from the three senior Taliban leaders, Baitullah's deputies in the tribal areas are said to have tens of thousands of fighters under their command. Hakeemullah Mehsud, Baitullah's cousin and deputy, is estimated to have more than 8,000 at his disposal in Kurram and Arakzai. Omar Khalid, the able commander in Mohmand, is said to have more than 5,000 fighters. Bajaur's Faqir Mohammed and Swat's Mullah Fazlullah also are estimated to have 5,000 fighters each. The Uzbek fighters under Tahir Yuldashev are said to have more than 4,000 fighters at their disposal. Rehmanullah and Hazrat Ali, Hakeemullah's deputies in Khyber, are said to lead more than 1,200 fighters. And al Qaeda's paramilitary Shadow Army, which operates in both Afghanistan and in Pakistan's tribal areas, has between 8,000 to 12,000 fighters in its ranks.

The military is currently conducting offensives against the Taliban in Swat, Arakzai, Bannu, Bajaur, and Mohmand, but it remains to be seen if these offensives will be sustained. If the Pakistani military eases the pressure on these areas, some of these fighters will be freed up to reinforce Baitullah, making a tough task of dislodging the Taliban commander all the more difficult.

Background on recent fighting in North and South Waziristan

The Pakistani military has avoided targeting the Taliban in North and South Waziristan after suffering a string of humiliating defeats there between 2004 and 2008. The most recent operations in Waziristan resulted in peace agreements that have ceded control of the region to the Taliban.

The last time the Pakistani military took on the Taliban in North Waziristan was in October 2007. The Pakistani military and the Taliban fought pitched battles after the military launched artillery barrages and helicopter and attack aircraft assaults against Taliban-controlled villages in North Waziristan.

The Taliban responded by setting up complex ambushes, including surface-to-air missile traps, a senior US military intelligence official told The Long War Journal. Several Pakistani Army helicopters were said to have been shot down during the fighting. The Pakistani military claimed that 120 Taliban and 45 soldiers were killed in the fighting, but independent reports put the number of soldiers killed much higher.

At the end of October 2007, the government pushed for a peace deal and the fighting waned. The Taliban, led by the Haqqani Network and Hafiz Gul Bahadar, remained entrenched in the region. In February 2008, an official peace agreement was signed.

The last major operation against the Taliban in South Waziristan took place in late January 2008. The military launched an offensive with the declared aim of dislodging Baitullah Mehsud's forces from entrenched positions. Prior to the military's offensive, the Taliban overran two military forts and conducted numerous attacks against Pakistani forces. More than a dozen of Pakistan's elite counterterrorism commandos were killed in a single engagement.

The military claimed to have ejected the Taliban from strongholds in Kotkai and Jandola, and said it killed Qari Hussain. Hussain later mocked the government during a press conference in May 2008.

Just 11 days after the fighting in South Waziristan had begun, the military sued for peace. The Taliban retook control of Jandola four months later, after murdering dozens from a rival tribe while the military looked on. The military has since abandoned several forts in South Waziristan and has kept activity there to a minimum.

Taliban forces belonging to Baitullah, Mullah Nazir, Hafiz Gul Bahadar, and the Haqqanis, led by Siraj, have only grown stronger since defeating the Pakistani military during engagements in 2007 and 2008. Tens of thousands of fighters are under the collective command of the leaders. The recent alliance between Baitullah, Nazir, and Bahadar has unified the Waziristan Taliban.

Map of the South Waziristan region

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READER COMMENTS: "Analysis: Waziristan operation to focus on Baitullah Mehsud"

Posted by KaneKaizer at June 17, 2009 2:51 AM ET:

The Pakistanis sure have an uphill battle when it comes to Waziristan. And that's a pretty steep hill.

Posted by conycatcher at June 17, 2009 9:30 AM ET:

It sounds like the government has an arduous task ahead. There are over 100,000 militants it would potentially have to face. It was hard enough to dislodge 5000 militants from Swat.

Posted by Lorenz Gude at June 17, 2009 9:45 AM ET:

It seems unlikely that the Taliban will allow the government the luxury of engaging them piecemeal. I can't help but wonder if this approach says more about government resolve than about how the various Taliban groups intend to respond.

Posted by David M at June 17, 2009 10:28 AM ET:

The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 06/17/2009 News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.

Posted by Neo at June 17, 2009 9:24 PM ET:

Everything is clear as mud, as usual. The political situation surrounding the new government offensive has many competing aspects. On the surface, the decision to specifically target Baitullah seems to be partly pragmatic in that the Pakistani army wants to limit how much it takes on at once. The Swat-Dir offensive still takes a sizable chunk of resources. The government and army can Politically justify attacking Baitullah, even to doubters, while there may be a great deal of resistance in some quarters to openly attacking other "friendly" parts of the Taliban. To the degree they aren't still deluded that they actually have friends among the Taliban, the government still would like to limit the political exposure taking on all Taliban groups would entail. The Pakistani government obviously doesn't have an internal consensus about this but the Taliban may be stupid enough to force the issue.

The "friendly" parts of the Taliban certainly haven't acted very friendly, but many in Pakistani society remember the past, when these same groups could be leveraged toward Pakistan's purposes and aspirations. That old relationship is long gone, but many in Pakistan have yet to reconcile themselves to that fact. Much of the populous still frame this conflict as an Islam against the west problem. Why wouldn't they? That is what they have been told since the early 90's. Instead this has long since grown into a violent bid for power over the Pakistani state.

Any offensive in South Waziristan will not remain a restricted to just Baitullah's network. The other Taliban networks will be drawn in, either immediately or piecemeal. I doubt if this operation goes as smoothly as in Swat. The army is striking too near to the heart of Taliban activity. The Taliban will fight this time.

Initially the Pakistani army really doesn't need to take the fight to the other networks. The onus will be on the other Taliban networks as to what degree they will help Baitullah. The Taliban still has many friends in the Pakistani security but there will be limits to how much they can ask from those supporters. Many of their supporters within the government may be highly reluctant to follow their Taliban "friends" into open conflict with the government and much of the rest of Pakistani society. At this point, I think it is important to remember that neither side in this conflict seems to have an open writ to wage total war on the other side without risking support among sympathetic segments of the population at large.

How deep will Pakistan's new resolve be, as this war drags on? That will be the ultimate question. It would appear their resolve is rather weak at this point, but who knows? The Taliban should be in a position of strength, but its extremism and bloodlust have a tendency to make new enemies and increase the resolve of existing enemies. I've tended to be a pessimist about the situation in Pakistan, but the Taliban may yet prod Pakistani society into squashing them. One would think the Taliban would get a little political savvy, rather than try to demolish all that stands in their path. It just doesn't seem to be in their nature. The Taliban's actions are as predictable as sticking a bucket of trash in front of a dog. They really can't seem to help themselves.

Posted by wmoov at June 18, 2009 8:37 AM ET:

>>The Pakistanis sure have an uphill battle when it comes to Waziristan. And that's a pretty steep hill.

I don't think so.

Posted by Neo at June 18, 2009 10:21 AM ET:

The Pakistani army is going to have to be very careful about overexposing itself in Southern Waziristan. I'm not sure attempting a clearing operation like the Swat offensive would be a good idea at this time. Clearing operations would entail very hard fighting and holding extensive territory would prove impossible. The Taliban is just too strong in the area for effective clear and hold operations. Rather, the Pakistani army needs to gradually increase pressure in the area and reduce known Taliban assets. The Army also needs to leave itself room to deal with internal problems.