The Pakistani military is not planning to confront Baitullah Mehsud’s Taliban forces head on in South Waziristan. Instead the military will rely on air and artillery strikes and attempt to blockade the region.
The Pakistani military’s plan for South Waziristan was initially reported by the Globe and Mail. US intelligence officials familiar with the military landscape in northwestern Pakistan confirmed the Pakistani military’s plan for South Waziristan during conversations with The Long War Journal.
“The South Waziristan operation is punitive in nature,” one official told The Long War Journal. “You won’t see COIN there, ” the official continued, referring to the counterinsurgency techniques of driving out insurgents, holding territory, and securing the local population.
“They think they can win this via the air, like the Israelis thought they could beat Hezbollah [in Lebanon in 2006],” the official observed.
“The Pakistani military wrongly believes the TTP [the Tehrik-e-Taliban, or the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan] will collapse if Baitullah is killed,” another official said. “But the TTP has deep roots in Waziristan and there are many capable commanders waiting in the wings.”
Qari Hussain Mehsud and Hakeemullah Mehsud, two powerful and influential Taliban commanders, are expected to vie for succession in the event of Baitullah’s death.
Unlike the military operation in Swat, where the Army and the Frontier Corps engaged the Taliban on the ground and physically took control of towns, “the South Waziristan operation will use artillery, jet fighters and attack helicopters, the Globe and Mail reported. The US has weighed in against Baitullah, conducting eight Predator attacks against Baitullah’s training camps and safe houses since June 14.
The Pakistani Army’s strategy in South Waziristan became evident in early July, when ground forces failed to directly move into Baitullah’s strongholds and the military instead chose to rely on strikes by aircraft, helicopters, and artillery [see LWJ report, Taliban threaten collaborators in North Waziristan].
Ground troops were used to secure the main roads into Baitullah’s territory, and typically only fought ground engagements when attacked. There have been no reports of major ground operations in South Waziristan since June 20, when Pakistani officials said the ground operation was underway.
Cards stacked against the Pakistani military in South Waziristan
Even if the military had intended to confront the Taliban head on in South Waziristan, four recent developments would have made the task far more difficult. These developments also signal that the effort to combat Baitullah’s forces by isolating them is unlikely to succeed [for an in-depth look at why a strategy of targeting Baitullah exclusively will likely fail, see LWJ report, Analysis: Waziristan operation to focus on Baitullah Mehsud].
The formation of the Council of United Mujahideen in February of this year greatly complicated the military’s task of isolating Baitullah. At that time, South Waziristan Taliban commander Mullah Nazir and North Waziristan leader Hafiz Gul Bahadar put aside tribal differences with Baitullah and joined with him to form the Council of United Mujahideen “according to the wishes of Mujahideen leaders like Mullah Muhammad Omar and Sheikh Osama bin Laden,” as stated in a pamphlet released by the group announcing its formation. The new Taliban alliance said it openly supports Omar and bin Laden in their war against the US, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.
The Pakistanis have long considered Bahadar and Nazir “good” or “pro-government” Taliban because they did not advocate fighting the Pakistani military but rather focused their efforts against the Coalition in Afghanistan. But Nazir and Bahadar, like Baitullah, openly support al Qaeda and host training camps for the terror groups as well as for the numerous Pakistani jihadi groups. These three leaders also provide fighters to serve in the Lashkar al Zil, al Qaeda’s paramilitary Shadow Army that operates along the Afghan and Pakistani border areas.
Despite the formation of the Council of United Mujahideen, however, the Pakistani military held to the the belief that Bahadar and Nazir could be kept on the sidelines while Baitullah was targeted. The military hoped “peace agreements” with the two Taliban commanders would remain in effect, and openly said that an operation in North Waziristan was off the table.
This belief was shattered in late June when Bahadar declared that the peace agreement with the military was over. The Taliban shura, or council, in North Waziristan decided to terminate the 16-month-old peace agreement because the Taliban’s demands that the government withdraw troops from the tribal agency and end the US-led and Pakistan-supported Predator campaign had not been met.
“We will attack forces everywhere in Waziristan unless the government fulfills these two demands,” said Ahmadullah Ahmadi, a spokesman for the Taliban.
Now Nazir also appears to have cast aside the peace agreement. Just yesterday, his spokesman described the peace agreement as “ineffective.”
“We think the peace deal has lost its validity and we hold the government responsible for this,” Abdul Haq, a spokesman for Nazir, told Dawn. Haq accused the military of attacking Nazir’s forces in Wana.
With Bahadar and Nazir siding with Baitullah, the military’s supply lines into Baitullah’s tribal areas have come under attack. And Baitullah now maintains the ability to shelter his forces outside the areas being attacked by the Pakistani Air Force.
The military has also lost the support of other “pro-government Taliban” groups organized to oppose Baitullah. On June 23, Baitullah had his pro-government rival Qari Zainuddin Mehsud assassinated in Dera Ismail Khan, less than a month after Zainuddin had made public statements denouncing Mehsud. Zainuddin and his ally Turkistan Bhittani had been attempting to raise a large force to fight alongside the Army against Baitullah.
Zainuddin was succeeded by his younger brother, but the movement appears to have faltered. Zainuddin had to be secretly buried under the care of the military far from Waziristan, lest this body be dug up and desecrated.
The government has since ejected Bhittani from Tank, a district that borders South Waziristan. Bhittani accused the local government in Tank of backing Baitullah.
“The administration is helping the Baitullah group to hold public meetings in the Mulazai area,” he told a press conference. “Baitullah Mehsud is once again provided an opportunity to return to Tank.”
Background on recent fighting in North and South Waziristan
The Pakistani military has avoided directly confronting 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 Jalaluddin’s son Sirajuddin, 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 these leaders.
Map of the South Waziristan region
Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD’s Long War Journal.