A new Waziristan offensive?
According to Dawn, the Pakistani military has decided it can no longer wait to take on the Taliban in Waziristan:
After fighting brief skirmishes against militants, the Pakistan Army plans to unfold in the next few days what military officials characterize as the mother of all battles in South Waziristan, senior military and security officials said on Thursday.
'If we don't take the battle to them, they will bring the battle to us,' a senior military official said of the militants. 'The epicentre of the behemoth called the Taliban lies in South Waziristan, and this is where we will be fighting the toughest of all battles.'
For three months, the military has been drawing up plans, holding in-depth deliberations and carrying out studies on past expeditions to make what seems to be the last grand stand against Pakistani Taliban in the Mehsud heartland a success.
'We are ready. The environment is ready,' the senior officer said. But military officials also admit Waziristan will not be an easy battle. 'It will not be a walkover. This is going to be casualty-intensive hard fighting. The nation will have to bear the pain,' said another officer.
One correction to the piece: Baitullah Mehsud's forces defeated the military in four separate offensives, not two. The military was also beaten back in the fall of 2007 as well as in the winter of 2008. In addition, while not technically a defeat, this summer's operation, which was launched with much fanfare by the Pakistani military and government, failed to meet its objective of defeating the Taliban in the Mehsud tribal areas.
Here are a couple of things to look for, assuming the operation is launched:
1. Objectives. Does the military intend to move into the Mehsud strongholds and hold ground (occupy the region)? If not, will this be just another punitive strike, designed to inflict casualties on the Taliban in the hope of killing senior leaders?
2. Scope. Is this an all-out offensive against all of the Taliban in Waziristan, or limited only to the Mehsud Taliban forces, now under the command of Waliur Rehman Mehsud (with Hakeemullah serving as the overall leader of the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan)? Previous offensives, including the punitive operation this summer that was touted as a major operation but in reality consisted of a blockade and bombardment, have focused on the Taliban under the command of Baitullah Mehsud. The military has indicated it has no intentions of taking on Hafiz Gul Bahadar, Mullah Nazir, or the Haqqani family. Yet without tackling these groups, the Taliban threat, and the al Qaeda havens, will remain in Pakistan's tribal areas.
3. Taliban reaction. How will Bahadar and Nazir react? Will they openly support the Mehsud Taliban, or sit on the sidelines? Nazir recently attended a "peace jirga" of the Wazir tribes and supported the revival of the 2007 "peace agreement'" with the government. According to that agreement, Nazir is supposed to eject foreign fighters (read "al Qaeda") and stop attacks against the military. But he has never lived up to his end of the agreement. And Bahadar's forces have been attacking Pakistani forces in North Waziristan and slaying pro-government tribal leaders. The Haqqanis have close links to Pakistan's Inter-Service Intelligence agency and will remain above the fray in Waziristan.
4. Expanded operations? Would the military expand its operation if Nazir and/or Bahadar weigh in on the side of the Mehsuds? It is doubtful, as the military has gone out of its way to placate these two groups, even to the point of saying peace agreements were intact while governmental forces were being attacked.
5. Capacity. Does the Pakistani military and government have the capacity to wage a full-fledged counterinsurgency in Waziristan? Waliur Rehman is estimated to be able to muster between 10,000 to 30,000 tribal fighters. The Pakistani Army and Frontier Corps would need to throw multiple divisions against a Taliban force of this size. According to Sameer Lalwani's excellent study at the New America Foundation, the Pakistani military and the government are already stretched with the operation in the Swat Valley, and lack the capacity to expand the fight.
6. Enablers. Will other "pro-government" Taliban groups such as the Abdullah Mehsud group (named after a former Gitmo detainee) back the government after recently being abandoned by it?
7. Taliban blowback. Will the Taliban open a suicide front in wider Pakistan? This is how the Taliban have responded in the past, and according to Pakistani intelligence, they are prepared to do so to avenge the death of Baitullah Mehsud.
8. Timing. Is the military prepared to launch a major offensive now, when the tough winter snows are just around the corner? The terrain favors the Taliban greatly, and military convoys would be confined to rough roads, easy prey for the experienced Taliban fighters.