Tough talk after the Marriott bombing, but can Pakistan deliver?

The devastating bombing at the Marriott Hotel in the heart of Islamabad on Sept. 20 has prompted the Pakistani government to talk tough on taking on the Taliban and al Qaeda in Pakistan’s tribal areas. The latest attack, which killed more than 50 Pakistanis and foreigners and wounded more than 270, is being described as “Pakistan’s 9-11.” But US military officers and intelligence officials interviewed by The Long War Journal are concerned Pakistan does not have the capacity to take the fight to the Taliban and al Qaeda in their safe havens in the northwest.

Over the past three days, senior Pakistani leaders said military operations in the tribal areas would intensify. Anonymous sources told the Pakistan press that major operations would be launched today. No such offensive has been detected. The governor of the Northwest Frontier Province said operations would continue for the next five months.

Military offensives in the tribal agency of Bajaur and the settled district of Swat have been underway since the summer, but these operations have taken on a new meaning since the Marriott attack. The ongoing military operation in the tribal agency of Bajaur has been described as “a tipping-point for Pakistan’s internal security” by Dawn, Pakistan’s premier newspaper. The Bajaur operation has “created a surrender-or-die situation for the militants and a now-or-never moment for the country’s security forces.”

The military is fighting a determined force in Bajaur. US military and intelligence sources have long told The Long War Journal the Taliban and their allies have organized into military formations capable of fighting at the battalion and in some cases the brigade level. Pakistani officials have confirmed this with the latest fighting in Bajaur.

The Taliban “have good weaponry and a better communication system (than ours),” a senior Pakistani official told Dawn. “Even the sniper rifles they use are better than some of ours. Their tactics are mind-boggling and they have defenses that would take us days to build. It does not look as though we are fighting a rag-tag militia; they are fighting like an organized force.”

While the operations in Swat and Bajaur have helped tie down the Taliban in Pakistan, a senior US military intelligence official told The Long War Journal, but until the Pakistani military is able to conduct concurrent operations throughout the entire Northwest Frontier Province, any success will be limited. “If the Pakistanis fight this operation piecemeal, it will change little,” a US military officer said.

Neighboring agencies and districts serve as safe havens and vital elements of the logistical chain for Taliban operations against Pakistani forces while the fighting is ongoing. The Taliban have continually shown the capacity to regroup in neighboring tribal agencies and districts after bleeding and demoralizing Pakistan forces and then withdrawing. The Pakistan government and military’s propensity to sign “peace agreements” only provides the time and space needed for the Taliban to regroup.

In order for the government to defeat the Taliban, military operations will need to be carried out concurrently in the tribal areas and the greater Northwest Frontier Province. Current operations are focused on Swat and Bajaur, but the Taliban remains strong in the neighboring agencies and districts of Dir, Mohmand, Malakand, Buner, Shangla, Kohistan, and Dir. North and South Waziristan and the southern agencies and districts serve as the Taliban’s strategic reserve.

It is unclear at this time if the Pakistani military has the capacity or will to fight throughout the entire northwest, a senior US military officer told The Long War Journal. Pakistan said it has deployed more than 100,000 troops to the region, but these troops have had little effect on the security situation. The Pakistani military will be hesitant to redeploy more forces from the eastern border with India to increase the reserves needed to fight the Taliban throughout the province.

And, as always, the morale and will of the Pakistani military and intelligence services remains a serious question mark. Elements of the Inter-Service Intelligence are known to openly support the Taliban and al Qaeda, and portions of the military are either sympathetic to the Taliban or unwilling to fight their countrymen.

While the tough talk against the Taliban and al Qaeda is welcomed in Washington and Western capitals, US military and intelligence officials worry we will see more of the same from Pakistan: ineffective, uncoordinated operations that do little to put a real dent in al Qaeda and the Taliban’s capabilities. Past operations against the Taliban have only proven inneffective.

“The Pakistani government can say what it likes, but unless the Army is willing and capable of fighting an extended battle, it won’t amount for much,” a senior US military intelligence official said. “The wildcard is Pakistan’s military.”

A look at the state of the Taliban and Pakistani military operations over the past year in the tribal areas and Northwest Frontier Province:

Map of the tribal areas and the Northwest Frontier Province. Hangu is the latest district to fall under Taliban control. The government signed peace agreements in the red agencies/ districts; purple districts are under de facto Taliban control; yellow regions are under Taliban influence.


The most intensive fighting in Pakistan is occurring in the tribal agency of Bajaur. The fighting began in early August, when Pakistani forces launched an attack to dislodge the Taliban from strongholds throughout the agency.

The military has made little progress in the operation. A Frontier Corps convoy was ambushed and routed in the Loisam region. The military later claimed it took control of Loisam and other areas, but heavy fighting is ongoing throughout the agency. Khar, the administrative seat of Bajaur, is still contested.

The Pakistani government claimed the operation in Bajaur is targeting “foreign militants, including Uzbeks, Chechens and Arabs” and not Pakistani tribesmen or Taliban forces, Daily Times reported. But the military has since claimed more than 700 Taliban fighters have been killed during the fighting.

Leaders from the Salarzai and Utmankhel tribes have formed Lashkars, or tribal armies, to fight the Taliban and have had limited success. But the powerful Mamond tribe is still siding with the Taliban and al Qaeda. Bajaur is a stronghold of Faqir Mohammed, the leader of a radical Taliban group. The agency also serves as al Qaeda’s command and control center for attacks in northeastern Afghanistan.

Pakistan intelligence sources claimed Mustafa Abu Yazid, al Qaeda’s commander in Afghanistan, and Faqir were killed in strikes in Bajaur. But both Yazid and Faqir have since appeared on videotape.


The military began operations to clear the Taliban in Swat in November 2007, and are still fighting tough battles in the settled district. The operation began after Mullah Fazlullah, the local Taliban leader, took over the region. The military claimed it would clear the Taliban from Swat by mid-December 2007.

After a half a year of brutal fighting, the government negotiated a peace accord with Fazlullah in May 2008. Fighting restarted in July 2008. The government said the operation would be completed in three months. The time has nearly expired.

The Taliban attack government forces in Swat on a daily basis. Yesterday, a suicide bomber killed nine soldiers. Taliban fighters bombed a power station the day prior. The attack knocked out electricity throughout much of the region.

Swat was once Pakistan’s vacation paradise, rich with golf courses, hiking trails, a ski resort, and archeological sites. The fighting has destroyed Swat’s tourist industry.

Kohat & Aurakzai

The military and the Taliban have fought pitched battles in the settled district of Kohat and the Aurakzai tribal agency since the beginning of this year. The Taliban took control of the Kohat Tunnel in the winter and had rampaged in the city of Darra Adam Khel.

The Taliban hijacked a military convoy in Darra Adam Khel and seized weapons destined for the military operation in South Waziristan in late January. Clashes ensued as the Pakistani military moved forces into the region to battle the Taliban, but the military backed down and quickly formed a “peace jirga” to negotiate with the Taliban.

The Taliban responded by taking control of the strategic Kohat Tunnel. The Taliban kidnapped more than 50 paramilitary troops from the Frontier Corps during the fighting at the Kohat Tunnel. Several soldiers and paramilitaries were beheaded and mutilated. The government retook the Kohat Tunnel after days of fierce fighting, but not before the Taliban damaged the tunnel during an attempt to destroy it.

On March 2, the Taliban conducted a suicide bombing on a tribal jirga being held in the town of Zargoan in Kohat. More than 40 Pakistanis were killed and 40 wounded when a suicide bomber detonated his vest in the middle of the crowd as they exited the meeting. The tribal elders were discussing ways to drive the Taliban from the region. The tribes dropped the issue after the attack.

The Kohat Tunnel and the Indus Highway have been closed since Aug. 28 after the Taliban conducted a complex suicide attack on military installation close to the Kohat Tunnel. The Taliban nearly overran the base. The tunnel and highway serve as a vital link between Peshawar and the southern tribal agencies and districts.

The military claimed it killed 50 Taliban fighters in Darra Adam Khel over the past two days, and has fully retaken control of the Kohat Tunnel and Indus Highway.


The Mohmand tribal agency has been relatively quiet since the provincial government cut a peace deal with local Taliban leader Omar Khalid. The Taliban immediately established a parallel government and has continued to support Taliban operations in Kurram, Bajaur, and in Afghanistan.

In the past Khalid denied any connections to al Qaeda or the Taliban. He has since joined the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan, the umbrella Taliban organization led by Baitullah Mehsud that united movements in the tribal areas and the settled districts of the Northwest Frontier Province. Khalid is the Taliban’s representative for Mohmand agency.


Kurram is one of the few areas in Pakistan’s northwest where the locals have fought the rise of the Taliban. Kurram has a large Shia population that has long opposed the Taliban. Sectarian fighting in Kurram has been intense the past year, with hundreds on each side killed and thousands wounded during heavy fighting.

The Taliban and al Qaeda have used Kurram as a training ground. Forces are sent to the agency to hone their skills before fighting against the Pakistani military or NATO forces in Afghanistan, a several US intelligence sources told The Long War Journal.

The Pakistani military has refused to intervene in the fighting in Kurram despite pleas from the local population.


The Taliban have been threatening to overrun Peshawar, the provincial capital of the Northwest Frontier Province, since late last year. The Taliban control or have a strong presence in the neighboring tribal agencies and settled districts, nearly enclosing Peshawar in a vice.

The Taliban began heavily attacking police and Frontier Corps outposts surrounding the city during the spring, and also began conducting several high-profile suicide and military attacks inside the city proper.

The military upped security and turned the city into a virtual fortress. An operation was launched in Khyber in what was supposed to be an effort to relieve pressure on the city. But the Taliban have continued to press in Peshawar by issuing night letters, threatening businesses, conducting assassinations and bombings, and attacking security forces.

Yesterday, Taliban fighters kidnapped Afghanistan’s ambassador-designate to Pakistan in the city of Peshawar. Taliban fighters ambushed the ambassador’s car, killing the driver. Today, the Taliban nearly kidnapped Afghanistan’s commercial consular official in Peshawar. In August, the Taliban ambushed a car carrying the senior US diplomat in Peshawar. The attack came close to killing the diplomat.


The Pakistani military launched an operation to clear Khyber of Taliban elements and relieve pressure on Peshawar in early July. The military said it was directly targeting the local extremist groups of Ansar-ul-Islam, Lashkar-e-Islam, and the Promotion of Virtue and Suppression of Vice. The groups were outlawed by the government after a request from the commander of the paramilitary Frontier Corps.

But the operation yielded little success in capturing senior leaders of the Taliban-linked groups. The military even admitted the operation was a show of force only. Haji Namdar, the leader of the Promotion of Virtue and Suppression of Vice, was even seen riding with the Frontier Corps to ensure his fighters did not clash with Pakistani forces.

The military signed a peace agreement with Mangal Bagh, the leader of the Lashkar-e-Islam just 11 days after the operation began. All of the 93 supposed Taliban fighters detained in Khyber were later released from custody.

Khyber is now largely under the control of Ansar-ul-Islam and Lashkar-e-Islam. The military maintains a heavy presence to keep a supply line open for NATO forces in Afghanistan.

North Waziristan

The military has been largely inactive in North Waziristan, but the Taliban forces under the command of Jalaluddin Haqqani and Hafiz Gul Bahadar have been active in attacking Pakistani forces of late. The Pakistani military has been unwilling to operate in the region after suffering a strike of major defeats in the region over the past several years.

The Haqqani Network began attacking military forces after the US bombed a compound run by the Haqqani Family outside of Miramshah earlier this month. The military has responded by launching limited artillery and air strikes against attacking Taliban forces.

North Waziristan has been under effective Taliban control since September of 2006, when the government signed a peace agreement with Taliban leaders. North Waziristan serves as a launch pad for attacks into eastern Afghanistan as well as a hideout for senior and mid-level al Qaeda leaders.

The US has launched multiple strikes in North Waziristan this year in an effort to take down al Qaeda and the Haqqani networks. One of the strikes killed Abu Laith al Libi, al Qaeda’s senior commander in Afghanistan, in a compound in Haqqani’s tribal areas.

South Waziristan

South Waziristan remains under the firm control of Taliban commanders Baitullah Mehsud and Mullah Nazir. Baitullah’s forces dealt the Pakistani military heavy defeats in January of this year after overrunning several forts and conducting strong defenses of their tribal areas.

The military honored a cease-fire after a month of heavy fighting in January, and began abandoning forts and checkpoints in the agency later in the year after admitting the supply lines in the region were insecure. The government and military have been reluctant to antagonize the Taliban in South Waziristan, despite the fact that it accuses Baitullah of conducting the most deadly suicide attacks in Pakistan over the past several years.

Hangu, Bannu, Tank, Lakki Marwat, Dera Ismail Khan, Dir, Malakand, Shangla, Mardan, Chitral, Buner, and Kohistan

The Taliban maintain a strong presence in these settled districts, but rarely conduct military operations there. Some of the largest suicide attacks in Pakistan over the past several years have occurred in these districts. The Taliban appear to be keeping the local populations in line while striking at government targets in the region.

Tribes in Buner and Dir have recently said they would oppose the Taliban and are working to eject them. The Taliban have responded by conducting attacks to cower the tribes. A suicide attack at a mosque in Dir killed 25 and wounded more than 50. Tribal fighters in Dir recently killed three Taliban suicide bombers after they attempted to take over a school packed with 300 children.

But the tribal also oppose the presence of Pakistani security forces. The Taliban have responded violently to such tribal opposition in the past. Without the help of the Pakistani security forces the tribes have little hope of surviving a concerted attack.

Also read:

Pakistan’s inconclusive military operations against the Taliban

June 28, 2008

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.



  • Kidartbai says:

    The answer is obviously no, at least at how you raise the question. PA cannot sustain a long and intense offensive operation in all the tribal agencies at once. Just looking at the defence budget and orbat will make this evident.

  • remoteman says:

    Of course the Pak army cannot deal with AQ and the Taliban in the frontier provinces. They have neither the will nor the means. Mostly they don’t have the will.
    I am sure the US would be happy to support a coordinated and sustained effort to eradicate the terrorist vermin, but that would require permitting US air power and ground forces free reign in the area. That would require the acceptance of civilian casualties, in some cases severe levels of them.
    I don’t see a Sons of Iraq solution here. There does not appear to me to be much local disdain for the Talibs at this point. Perhaps a prolonged ariel pounding combined with a few years of living under the Taliban paradise would change their opinions, but I doubt it.
    I am not optomistic at all about this region. Afghanistan is landlocked and our supply lines go through hostile territory, which is not sustainable. They and the tribal regions are many generations removed from modern society (except in their use of weapons). I am of a mind that we get the hell out of there, but leave them with the warning that should a terrorist attack originate there, our bombers and or missiles will be paying a visit until the originating locale is no more.

  • Neo says:

    I do think this will be the biggest fight so far between Pakistan and the Taliban. I don’t agree that is likely to be either definitive fight or do or die. I wouldn’t set expectations too high. Pakistan is in a position to beat up on the Taliban quite a bit. They are not in a position to defeat them though.
    This fight may yet effect insurgency efforts in Afghanistan, if they haven’t already. The Haqqani network might increasingly find manpower siphoned off by the fight against the Pakistani government. NATO will be going on a winter season offensive and the Afghan Taliban may find themselves with less outside support than expected.
    I don’t think this is the tipping point of the sort some people seem to be hoping for, but it is a major transformation in this war. The Pakistani’s now know they are at war with the Taliban. I think we need to let it sink in and avoid the temptation of picking at the situation too much. Things must be kept in perspective. These cross boarder raids aren’t yet a critical factor in the war, and are done a some political risk.

  • Raj Kumar says:

    In my opinion you are expecting way too much from the Pakistani state. Their is simply no evidence of the Pakistani state wanting to take part in this fight. Marriott hotel is the proof if one was required that the elements of the organs of the Pakistani state have turned against the state of Pakistan as it exists at the moment and allied themselves with the green beards in the hope of turning Pakistan into a new Islamic emirate armed with nuclear weapons.
    If the US does not ‘fight’ the state & non state actors currently present on Pakistani soil and the fight has to take place on Pakistani soil. Then the US will loose this war.
    The other possibility which I think needs to consider is to secure the land route from the port of Gwadhar to Kandahar/Helmand province of Afghanistan. For us to do this we would have to neutralise the armed forces of Pakistan.

  • Neo says:

    “In my opinion you are expecting way too much from the Pakistani state. Their is simply no evidence of the Pakistani state wanting to take part in this fight.”

  • Private Finch says:

    It seems that the P- government lacks the will and courage to try to clean out the T-ban and tribal areas. The ISI and P-army are infitrated with members who are not interested in keeping the current government in power.
    The P-army seems to be of 1960 vintage and too weak to put-up a serious fight. It took months and a major effort for them to clean out the ‘Red Mosque.’ They seem to be completely fragmented.

  • David M says:

    The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 09/24/2008 News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.

  • Raj Kumar says:

    Would be happy to debate this with you but I don’t think Bill would be happy with me using this site for that reason.
    Please contact me on [email protected]. Needless to say that my view is that the longer we leave things in Pakistan the worse they will become for us as if things are not bad already.

  • Almoral says:

    I have a question: Given that the people of Kurran are anti-Taliban, and given that they seem cut off from help from the PAF; could the Americans give them support?
    I’m thinking CIA and SF teams training them in Internal Self Defence, perhaps calling in some UAV and gunship support.
    I suspect a bunch of Shia in the middle of the FATA that can actually defend themselves would be an irresistable lure for the Talban and AQ.
    Is this feasible or just a pipe dream?

  • Buff52 says:

    Does any one know or have an opinion as to whether the Pakistani Secret Intelligence Service and elements of the Pakistan Army are sympathetic to the Taliban and their allied groups?
    Could these Pakistani Secret Intelligence Service and Pakistani Army elements be “sand bagging” the Pakistan operations in favor the Taliban?

  • cjr says:

    My primary point is that we don’t know where this is leading. No one does!
    “A war is a series of catastrophes which result in victory” – George Clemenceau
    “Clemenceau was an optimist” – CJR

  • Kidartbai says:

    Buff52, the ISI is sympathetic to the Haqqani network, as they worked with these people very closely during the Soviet-Afghan war. The fighters of Bajaur are affiliated with Baitullah Mehsud and led by the Afghan commander Qari Ziaur Rahman and is considered an enemy supported by the Afghan side. Remember, the ISI many of it’s agents and assets in the tribal areas to Mehsud’s TTP.

  • slntax says:

    why dont we just build a DMZ like in north south korea along the duran line between afgan and paki? that will put a bunch of apaches on patrol with afgan and NATO on watch. then SF can route taliban from the inside of afgan while the DMZ will keep new terroists out.

  • Gringo says:

    We may eventually be looking at some sort of quarantine. Whether it be the Tribal Areas, or all of Pakistan, time will tell.

  • Kidartbai says:

    Pakistan had already proposed fencing and mining the border with Afghanistan in 2003, but this was rejected by Karzai. Afghanistan will never except any proposal that legitimizes the current border.

  • Kidartbai says:

    One more point. The US has to provide the equipment needed to fight the insurgency instead of just saying “do more” each time without realizing the capability limitations of the pak army. We don’t have hundreds of helicopters to support the ground troops all over FATA.
    “‘When we ask for capability, they start talking about joint operations and training programmes.
    We tell them ‘give us the capability and you will see more effective control of the tribal areas. And they tell us we are looking into it’, is how one military official described the Americans response.
    ‘We have been saying this for the last four years but there has not been any satisfactory answer’, he said.”
    “‘What we need is air mobility and NVDs for night operations and not any training programmes. For two years, we have been putting our battalion through a six months rigorous counter-insurgency training programme before we send them into Fata’, the officials said.”

  • slntax says:

    haah what a joke paki’s shoot at us and then ask for better equipment? yeah right. remind me again how many terrorist kills have those new f-16’s gotten? or they just to attack india?

  • Raj Kumar says:

    Pakistan Army does not need training for COIN operations. In its time it has quite easliy finished off 5 or more insurgency programs that I know about including one in East Pakistan, before the intervention by the Indians.
    Pakistan army has 30+ division deployed in the field and if it wanted it could quite easily steam roller the NWFP on a end to end basis without doing any assistance from anyone.
    The problem is not capability the problem is intention. Pakistan has no intention of fighting the green beards inside its borders and the sooner people recoginise this then the easier it will be.

  • jeandon says:

    The large formations of dug in “well-equipped” terrorists should be duck soup for a few of our special ops guys who can call down 2,000 lb bombs with exquisite accuracy. This might provide some major victories for the Paks that would give them some sorely needed victories and courage.

  • Private Finch says:

    This sounds good if the PA gets serious about going after AQ in the border areas. They don’t seem to have the will to go after the tribal areas. They seem to have such poor security that they are unable to keep AQ from having advance warning of attacks. It seems this is just a response to the Marriot Hotel bombing.


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