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.
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.
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 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.
June 28, 2008
Are you a dedicated reader of FDD's Long War Journal? Has our research benefitted you or your team over the years? Support our independent reporting and analysis today by considering a one-time or monthly donation. Thanks for reading! You can make a tax-deductible donation here.