South Waziristan offensive ‘punitive,’ not counterinsurgency

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

View Larger Map

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



  • Minnor says:

    Maybe they are waiting for Swat refugees to return, seems good strategy. There has to be a ground operation in South Waziristan, to destroy the facilities there.

  • Bill,
    I will ask you this question again – hoping to get a response. What is well known:
    1. Siraj Haqqani is the right hand operative of ISI and Lashkar e Taiba (LeT) is the left hand operative of ISI – Pakistan’s premier intelligence service. To bomb the Indian embassy in Kabul, ISI station head in Kandahar paid Siraj Haqqani’s group.
    2. Former DG (ISI) Hamid Gul is known as the Godfather of Taliban. He even took money from Osama bin Laden to topple Benazir with the help of Nawaz Sharif (in a well publicised meeting where Nawaz is stated to have told Osama bin Laden – I love Jehad).
    3. Now Siraj Haqqani is aligned with TTP which is aligned with Al-Qaeda.
    4. Pakistani forces are attacking TTP – punitively, it seems.
    So, ISI created Taliban and Siraj and now even LeT are aligned with Al-Qaeda. And Pakistan Army, under which is ISI, is fighting this same Taliban, Al Qaeda and supposedly even LeT (though Hafeez Saeed has been let off).
    Can you tell me what is the true picture here? Thanks.

  • zotz says:

    This is a scathing report on the Pakistani military. They seem to believe in these temporary truces with the Taliban as the way to maintain peace. We should continue with the drone attacks. The fact that this causes the Taliban to attack the Pakistani military is positive because it takes their focus off Afghanistan. Also, it prevents Pakistan from ignoring the tribal areas which it seems is their inclination. Pakistan has a very large army, mostly on the Indian border. We must spend our money building up the Afghan Army so they can defend themselves against Pakisan. Unless the Pakistanis radically change the way they think we shouldn’t be wasting our money on them.

  • conycatcher says:

    I wonder how congress feels about this having just approved an aid package.

  • David M says:

    The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 07/15/2009 News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.

  • Max says:

    The Pak government is an absolute joke. They’re as dependable against terrorism as a wet noodle.

  • Zalmay says:

    Smartest thing the Paki army has done so far. No force in the world can beat Waziris and Mehsuds at their own game in their own land. The US could learn from this mistake and stop initiating wars it cannot hope to win (Vietnam, Iraq, and now Afghanistan).
    Will this blog cover the already failed Halmand operation by US Marines where the Taleban have simply moved for the time being leaving the Marines frustrated?

  • bill I dont think that your web site should be used as anti pakistan propoganda site, if its not ur policy

  • MZBH says:

    The decision to not go for a ‘boots on the ground’ COIN campaign at this point in time is a pragmatic and good one. IIRC, Mr. Roggio also argued that he thought the Army would overstretch itself by going into SW so soon.
    While primarily utilizing airstrikes from the PAF, PA Aviation and the US Drones will not destroy the Taliban groups, sustained air assault operations, along with tightening the flow of materials into SW, will put a lot of pressure on the Taliban and the support they get from the local population.

  • Neo says:

    “The US could learn from this mistake and stop initiating wars it cannot hope to win (Vietnam, Iraq, and now Afghanistan).”

  • Minnor says:

    @Bengal, we can forget what happened in 90s. All changed in 9/11.
    It will be difficult to hold Waziristan, unlike Swat language there is not Urdu. Controlling all roads leading is essential to stop terror attacks on cities, and wait for Swat refugees to return. Then a clear and leave operation would be appropriate.

  • Hoboken says:

    Zalmay: Agree with you. Taliban/Al Queda has been said to be very patient. They know we are withdrawing out of Iraq next year. In the meantime they are having a picnic in Tora Bora and hibernating till that day. Then what? We hand the new war off to the Iraqi’s? HA!

  • zotz says:

    I see the terrorist sympathisers are spinning away. So I am to understand that allowing Helmand to fall to the marines with less than 10 American casualties was brilliant Taliban strategy? With this kind of strategic planning maybe we shouldn’t be targeting their leadership. If this is going to be a long siege campaign how will the Taliban resupply over a flat desert with no cover and with total American air supremacy.
    Give it up, jihadis, you don’t have a prayer of a chance.

  • Neo says:

    Ummm .. Maybe, I should point out to you that the Taliban picnic area in Tora Bora is nowhere near Iraq. Na, I probably shouldn’t bother pointing that out.

  • bert says:

    Some variation on Beau Geste is likely scenario for Helmandland: the Marines stand astride the water supply and normal trail routes — and just never leave.
    The non-native Talibs must drive off the Marines or go thirsty.
    That’s a tough proposition.
    Staying put on critical ground usually spells victory.
    In prior conflicts camping out along a valley floor would be deemed tactically unsound. However, UAVs and Tac Air make the high ground a beaten zone.
    The complete inability of the Taliban to bring true heavy weapons means that in virtually every skirmish they get punished badly.
    There medical care must be primitive: opium for pain.
    I wish I could see an end to the COIN meme. It’s bogus. The Taliban are an invading alien tribe — not the locals.

  • Zalmay says:

    Please don’t misinterpret my comment. We’re discussing the difference between punitive and so called COIN actions. And I’m specifically mentioning the current US goal of fighting to preserve the corrupt Afghan government. This is a failure waiting to happen from the word “go”.
    All of Afghanistan also fell to the US, Iraq fell to the US, Halmand fell to the US, Swat fell to the Pakistanis, Bajaur fell to the Pakistanis. We all know how this ends.

  • yas says:

    In the aftermath of the Mumbai attacks , the Pak Army Spokesperson held a press conference and said Baitullah Mehsud and Mullah Fazlullah are patriots and they will fight alongside the Pak Army. You will find these in the This press conference was televised by the all the TV channels in Pak and India

  • Toteone says:

    So very impressive Zalmay.
    Why don’t you read up on some history of the Boer rebellion and the insurgency in Burma? Or how the Tet offensive was a vast strategic disaster that spelled defeat for the Viet Cong only America declared defeat, just like in Somalia, and ran away – only for the South Vietnamese government to survive on it’s own until military aid was cut?
    Or would you explain the parameters for defeat in Iraq when it has so obviously been won? Afghanistan is being won too, albeit marginally.
    As for your precious Pakistan, it is a failure, and your admiration for the Army’s temporary, marginal and limited effect will leave you fooled for the long run, as it always has.

  • AUM.
    I appreciate the views expressed in the article under review. However, I am not sure if the Pakistan Army is taking a punitive action against the Taliban terrorists. One may recall that the present army chief, General Kayani had once said that the Taliban and Al Qaida would stand shoulder to shoulder with the Pakistan Army in confrontation withthe Indian Army. When the battle is joined in, those outfits would protect the flanks of the Pakistan Army. When the military and the militant have so much faith in each other, how can the same army take punitive action against the same militant outfit?
    it is just to placate the American public opinion that the action in South Waziristan has been ordered. But in the last fortnight or so, the Army has only captured Kotkai and nothing else. The Army is not interested in advancing fast at the cost of precious lives of its soldiers.
    The Taliban knmow that the Air Force alone cannot win the war otherwise Israel would have won the war in Lebanon in 2006. Right now there is STALEMATE. Period.


Islamic state



Al shabaab

Boko Haram