Analysis: What lies ahead in Waziristan

Note: The Pakistani military has launched its offensive in South Waziristan since this article was published.

With the Taliban offensive against military, police, and government installations as well as against soft civilian targets in full swing, the Pakistani government and military have been forced to make a decision on taking the fight to the Taliban.

The operation has been discussed since early June, when the military claimed it was moving into South Waziristan to defeat Baitullah Mehsud’s forces. But moving into South Waziristan via the ground was tabled and replaced with punitive air and artillery strikes designed to weaken the Taliban. While discussions about an operation were underway just prior to the current Taliban terror offensive, the military was content with pushing an operation back until next year.

But after a spate of attacks, including terror assault teams striking at the Army General Headquarters in Rawalpindi and three police centers in Lahore, action against the Taliban in South Waziristan could no longer be delayed. Following a meeting between senior military and government leaders on Oct. 16, the Pakistani Army has been given the green light to attack in the Taliban stronghold of South Waziristan. The operation will target the Mehsud branch of the Taliban in South Waziristan, as this group is deemed to be the major threat against Pakistan.

A military offensive in Waziristan will pit Pakistani troops against the best fighters the Taliban have to offer. The military has been defeated four times in South Waziristan since 2004, and has signed a series humiliating peace agreements in an effort to keep the Taliban at bay. Instead, the Taliban insurgency has metastasized throughout the tribal areas and into the Northwest Frontier Province.

The Waziristan Taliban

The Waziristan region is divided into two tribal agencies, North and South Waziristan. There are four major Taliban figures in the two agencies, with an array of allied terror groups based in the region. The operation will focus on only one Taliban group, based in South Waziristan.

In North Waziristan, the Haqqani Network operates in and around Miramshah, while Hafiz Gul Bahadar controls much of North Waziristan. Other Taliban commanders include Saddiq Noor and Maulana Abdul Khaliq Haqqani. Al Qaeda operative Abu Kasha al Iraqi runs a fiefdom in the Mir Ali region.

In South Waziristan, the two main Taliban leaders are Waliur Rehman Mehsud, based in the Makeen-Ladha-Sararogha region, and Mullah Nazir, based in the Wana region. Qari Hussain Mehsud, the notorious trainer of child suicide bombers and a senior military commander, is based in Kotkai.

Al Qaeda, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, the Islamic Jihad Union, Hezb-i-Islami Gulbuddin, and a host of Pakistani jihadi groups such as the Jaish-e-Mohammed, the Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, and the Harakat-ul-Mujahideen all have bases in both North and South Waziristan.

The target

The Pakistani military has made it clear that the operation will be limited to South Waziristan and will focus on the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan, which is run by Hakeemullah Mehsud and based throughout the tribal areas and the wider Northwest Frontier Province. Waliur Rehman Mehsud runs the South Waziristan branch of the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan.

The military has sought to sideline the Haqqanis, Bahadar, and Nazir in order to focus on the Mehsud branch of the Taliban in South Waziristan. The military purportedly has cut a deal with Nazir to remain out of the fight, and is currently in negotiations with Bahadar. The Haqqanis project little power in North Waziristan as the bulk of their forces are oriented towards the eastern Afghan provinces of Paktia, Paktika, and Khost.

It is imperative that the Army keep Nazir and Bahadar out of the fight as it does not have sufficient forces to take on all three groups at once. Even if sidelined, Bahadar and Nazir likely will provide safe havens and supplies to the Mehsuds to bleed the Pakistani Army.

The Mehsud Taliban are estimated to have 10,000 hardened, trained fighters who have battled both the Pakistani Army during past operations and NATO forces in Afghanistan. Another 20,000 tribal fighters are thought to be at the disposal of the Taliban; the Mehsud tribes have backed the Taliban in the past and there are few indications they will not do so in an upcoming operation.

Nazir is estimated to have 5,000 to 10,000 experienced fighters, and Bahadar another 20,000.

The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan is also thought to have substantial forces in the region. It is estimated that some 500 to 6,000 Central Asian fighters are at the disposal of the Taliban.

Another 30,000 Taliban fighters from Bajaur, Swat, Mohmand, Arakzai, Kurram, Kohat, and throughout the northwest are potentially at the disposal of Hakeemullah. However, with military operations underway in many of these areas, these forces are likely to be tied down.

The Pakistani military

The Pakistani Army is said to have been massing two or more divisions, or an estimated 28,000 soldiers, on the outskirts of the Makeen-Ladha-Sararogha region.

The Pakistani military is tight-lipped on deployments, so it is unclear what type of forces are arrayed against the Taliban. Given past operations in Bajaur, Swat, and Waziristan, the military will likely rely heavily on infantry from both the regular Army and the paramilitary Frontier Corps, supported by tank formations and air and artillery assets. In the past, the military has not deployed its advanced armor against the Taliban, but instead has relied on older, poorly armored tanks. Troops are often transported in pickup trucks and open-bed trucks, making them susceptible to deadly IED and suicide attacks and ambushes.

The Pakistani Air Force has deployed F-16 fighter-bombers and the Army has deployed Cobra attack helicopter gunships to target the Taliban by air, and has relied on artillery to pound bunkers and bases from the ground. Pakistani air and ground fire has been typically heavy-handed; villages are often attacked indiscriminately, increasing the odds of civilian casualties.

The military has the advantage of having the vast resources of the state to throw into the battle against the Taliban. One question that remains unanswered is the will of the senior military and political leaders. Some senior military leaders are reluctant to destroy the Taliban as they are viewed as assets against the Indians. And the Pakistani government is ultimately beholden to the military.

Also, there are varying reports of troop morale in the wake of the operation in Swat, where the military has been successful in dislodging the Taliban during the spring and summer. Some reports claim the officer and enlisted ranks are flush with success, while others claim the troops suffered heavy casualties and some units refused to fight. During prior operations in Waziristan, some units refused to fight or surrendered en masse without firing a shot.

The battlefield

The terrain in both North and South Waziristan is a difficult place for a modern army to fight. Thick with mountains and having few roads to support large-scale troop movements, the ground favors the defenders. Winter snows usually begin in November and block the mountain passes.

The Taliban have been in overt control of the region since 2004 and have had time to prepare the battlefield. They will have dispersed ammunition and weapons caches, built bunkers and fighting positions, and seeded the region with mines (IEDs). The Taliban have fought on this ground and know it well; they have defeated the Pakistani Army in four separate engagements since 2004 [see below].

There are three main roads leading to the Makeen/Ladha region: from Ramzak in the north (in North Waziristan), Wana in the southwest, and Jandola in the southeast. The military maintains brigade-sized garrisons in these three towns, which will be important hubs for the operation.

The Taliban will operate in small units, melt into the population, and focus on ambushing supply and troop columns on these three roads in an attempt to cut off and kill Army and Frontier Corps units. The Taliban will also attempt to hit the military in Ramzak, Jandola, and Wana to prove they can strike where the military is mustering. The Pakistani military will attempt to control the roads; occupy the high ground; set up garrison in the towns; and starve out, freeze out, and bomb out the Taliban.

Since June, the military has sought to isolate the Mehsud Taliban by blockading major roads and cutting off supplies to the Makeen-Ladha-Sararogha region. But the military has been clear that it has not blocked off secondary routes and traditional smuggling paths.

The Pakistani military has relied on airstrikes and artillery barrages to weaken the Taliban and destroy bunkers and bases. The US has also weighed in with a series of unmanned Predator and Reaper strikes aimed at Taliban leaders and camps. The campaign was ramped up from mid-June through July (nine straight US airstrikes in South Waziristan were carried out in six weeks), and culminated in the Aug. 5 attack that killed Baitullah Mehsud, the former leader of the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan.

The wild card: the US

The US has a vested interest in Pakistan succeeding against the Taliban in South Waziristan. The US has argued that Taliban fighters based in the region have been conducting attacks against NATO and Afghan forces in Afghanistan.

The US is reportedly rushing arms and equipment, including guided munitions for aircraft and helicopters, night vision equipment, and other aid to help the Pakistani military, which has said it lacks proper equipment to take on the Taliban. But recent reports indicate the Pakistani military has been funneling US support allocated to fight the Taliban to units on the border with country’s traditional enemy, India.

The US will also likely provide intelligence support. Unmanned US aircraft can provide ISR (intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance) support to Pakistani forces. Predators and Reapers can even be used to strike Taliban positions. US special operations forces are unlikely to be engaged due to political difficulties. The Pakistani military does not want US forces operating on the ground and fear that knowledge of this will stir up support for the Taliban.

While a Pakistani military offensive in South Waziristan will be welcomed, the US will find that the operation will fall well short of crushing the Taliban threat from Pakistan. The Pakistani government and military, by focusing on the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan, is targeting the one group that directly threatens the Pakistani state, while leaving Taliban groups that operate primarily in Afghanistan (Nazir, Haqqanis, Bahadar) intact.

The Pakistani government will also find that the Taliban is not merely based in South Waziristan, but has tentacles throughout the northwest and in Punjab, Sindh, and Baluchistan provinces. The “Punjabi Taliban” have taken credit for the recent attacks in Lahore and Rawalpindi, while the Pakistani jihadi groups created by the military to fight in Kashmir have allied with the Taliban as well.

Past operations in 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 military has insisted the agreement rains intact to this day, despite a spate of Taliban attacks against the military during the summer of 2009. The Taliban even negated the agreement.

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, however, and said it killed Qari Hussain. But 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, instead relying on punitive air and artillery strikes.

Map of the Ramzak/Makeen 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.

Tags: ,


  • Minnor says:

    Better late than never. Waziristan being sparsely populated compared to Swat, it is easier for army to run over, with the help of airforce. Towns will be captured quite easily, but to hold will be difficult.
    Taliban will go underground, literally. As seen in Swat, army will have to find out tunnels and bunkers, hope some ultrasonic technology helps here.

  • THIS IS IT!! says:

    THIS is the battle that will either bring about the collapse of the Taliban and the Taliban+Al-Qaeda alliance in Pakistan; or it will bring down the Pakistani government.
    If the Pakistani government starts to collapse, India will no sit back and by bringing India into the conflict, Al-Qaeda is going to ensure that it not only survives, but makes success in Afghanistan almost impossible.
    This is exactly like Zarqawi’s strategy of targeting the Shia in Iraq in order to start a civil war that would drain US control and resolve.

  • Excellent overview, Bill.

  • Ayamo says:

    So it has begun.
    I’m expecting news about great victories during the next few days. Dozens of Taliban will be killed, the army will march further into South Waziristan as it ever has, the Taliban will be finally be beaten.
    Or so they will say …
    Time will tell if this is the great showdown between the TTP and the Islamic State of Pakistan.
    I doubt it.
    If not the resistance of the Taliban, the winter will cease any operations in that area.

  • Zeissa says:

    India has enough strength to defeat both AQ, Taliban, their allies and Pakistan.

  • Phineas says:

    I’m not so sure this is as much the beginning of the end as it is yet another Pakistani “show offensive” designed to mollify Western observers without really accomplishing much. Maybe they’ve (finally) learned their lesson after the Rawalpindi debacle, but I expect instead they’ll be announcing “successful operations and a peace agreement” after a couple of weeks.

  • Tyler says:

    Time will tell how significant this is. I’m inclined to think its far more significant than the previous attempts since this is the first concerted offensive since a civilian government took over from Musharraf and it follows the operation in Swat.
    This will not be the battle that defeats the Taliban once and for all. Absolutely not. As always in defensive warfare the jihadists will play to their strengths. They’ll melt away with the refugees, retreat to the other strongholds. Leave behind a few thousand cannon fodder insurgents lead by mid-level commanders who know the terrain and tactics.
    Like Swat, this is a test of Pakistani resolve. And in that respect, this could well end up being a turning point.

  • KaneKaizer says:

    I’d imagine the Taliban will continue or even step up their attacks on major Pakistani urban targets. They’ll do whatever it takes to end this offensive as quickly as possible.

  • gfgwgc says:

    India, more than anyone else, is aware of the hornets nest that is Pakistan today. It would much rather have the various players in Pakistan (government, military, talibans, punjabi extremists) fight it out amongst themselves than insert itself into the mess and give them a reason to unite. Besides, India’s incursion into Pakistan may stir things up for the worse in Kashmir and perhaps even within India’s huge muslim community. It will therefore take a very extreme event for India to take a step offensively.
    The Singh government is focused on the economy and maintaining a high rate of economic growth. Investor confidence is strong and being reflected in the high foreign direct investment even during a time of worldwide recession. In the end, a strong and overwhelmingly larger economy vis a vis Pakistan is India’s best hope. One day, in the not too distant future, Pakistan will be treated as no more than an annoying neighbor.

  • Bill: You have the best background info anywhere. I point people to your work in lots of my Posts.
    I’d like someone to show what has happened in the Swat Valley area that the Pak Military just finished attacking. How many of the people are back, what did they come back to? Houses lost? No infrastructure? Crops dead, livestock lost? What is the human cost? How many people have yet to return, and where are they? This is going to be repeated now in South Waziristan. A human tragedy. The killing must stop.
    Also, I agree with THIS IS IT’s post here.

  • Steven Timm says:

    I’m curious….to what extent are there credible, 3rd – party, independent sources (non -government and non-taliban) that can report on what is happening on the ground? I mean, do we have confidence and trust the information provided by Paki and Taliban sources is accurate? Seems like public opinion and propoganda will be important to influencing public sentiment.
    Excellent web site…..just came across this site recently after reading Pat Tillman book by Jon Krakauer “Where Men Win Glory”. Thought the book was well written but I head from local source that real reason Tillmand death was covered up was surviror’s benefit is halved in case of fratricide…is that true?

  • T Ruth says:

    “If not the resistance of the Taliban, the winter will cease any operations in that area.”
    The Pak army will be looking for the first excuse to retreat, my guess.

  • ArneFufkin says:

    Perhaps i’ts the names of towns and districts, but this FATA/SWAT battlespace reminds me of something from “Lord of the Rings”. I expect Rehman Malik to step in front of the microphones any day now and describe a spectacular Pak Army victory over a company of Orcs and dominant air superiority over enemy Nazgul.

  • jayc says:

    If Bill is right on the number of Taliban present to fight, and Sun Tsu is right about his 10 to 1 soldiers to enemy teaching, then the Pak Army has their hands full. Throw in a bad winter……

  • babag says:

    “India, more than anyone else, is aware …………”
    Where did this India pop up from in discussion about waziristan?
    I hope American troops would never need encouragement from this bunch. This group will kill soldiers just by talking negative.

  • Civy says:

    RE: the winter. The Nazis learned from their experience in Russia, and took control of towns and farms to winter in when facing us down in the winter of ’44-’45, while we froze our butts off and endured a long winter of raging flu epidemics and counter-attacks.
    The Paks will have the towns, trucks and tracked vehicles, and would fare much, much better during a hard winter. If they set up kitchens & clinics, and confiscate all the food and medicine in areas they control, they should be able to starve the
    Taliban out over the winter. A cave is a cold, dreary place to freeze to death, and fires make excellent IR targets.

  • THIS IS IT!! says:

    “The Paks will have the towns, trucks and tracked vehicles, and would fare much, much better during a hard winter. If they set up kitchens & clinics, and confiscate all the food and medicine in areas they control, they should be able to starve the
    Taliban out over the winter. A cave is a cold, dreary place to freeze to death, and fires make excellent IR targets.”
    I think that’s an excellent strategy! Let’s hope the Pakistani Army can starve, freeze and force the Taliban to either surrender or light lovely warm fires so they can all dance to the song of the Hellfire missile!

  • THIS IS IT!! says:

    “…a spectacular Pak Army victory over a company of Orcs and dominant air superiority over enemy Nazgul.”
    This is great for morale! Keep ’em well oiled an’ firing command!

  • jayant says:

    To my mind this is going to be just some more of teh same that has been going on for almost ever now in pakistan-afganistan Another offensive, another battle, from which the pakistani army is going to come beaten, broken and reduced by, this is only going to embolden the jihadist to go against the state some more.
    the problem with pakistan is that its people think the army has been its sole saviour, the cure for all its ill, the institution that has kept it together, the reality infact is that army has been pakistan’s biggest curse and the real disease to begin with – it has ensured that pakistani politics never matured and that no insitution ever really became the pillar holding the country and now it has gone corrupted and moth eaten (islamised,corrupted, power hungry etc) by now. and the jihadist have started a steady attrition of it.

    Also someone commented about the impact on india’s large muslim community….rest assured, indian muslim community has never seriously affected by all this ‘global jihad’. The effect on it simply not a factor.

  • Usman says:

    Can anyone please tell me from where these AQ and Taliban gets support for War??
    God bless Pakistan !!!

  • Neo says:

    This Isn’t It 
    I hate to be contraire, but instead of this being a decisive battle, I can just as easily see another scenario where this develops into another standoff between the Pakistani government and Taliban elements.
    The initial phases of the Pakistani army moving in may well be a lot more straight forward than a lot of people believe it will be. The army will be going in much heavier, more methodically, and with more troops than before. While substantial, W. Mehsud’s men are not suitable for fighting infantry engagements. Even worse for them, their experience at waging gorilla operations against infantry is modest at best. They are best at terrorism, IED’s, hitting fixed targets, and melting away to fight again another day.
    During the initial stages the Pakistani army’s chief concerns will be keeping their own people serious and focused, and methodically avoiding exposing troops to easy ambush. Unlike the Swat operation the Pakistani military will not be as sensitive to the civilian population. This is a core area of support for the Taliban. If the Mehsud clan wants to make a stand in and around its villages and population centers, the Pakistani army will just systematically flatten their villages. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the army systematically flattens Mehsud clan areas whether they resist or not.
    The Southern Waziristan clans have already moved their families out of the area. The fighters themselves will very soon be the grateful gests of the North Waziristan Taliban groups. Over the winter this will develop into an even larger standoff. If the Pakistani army wants to get directly at Mehsud’s men, than they will ultimately have to face the northern clans as well. Forget about prior agreements, or getting any cooperation from the northern clans, the Northern clans only work with the Pakistani government when it is to their benefit.
    The winter will have the Pakistani army settling into an occupation of key areas inside Southern Waziristan. Initially it will give the Pakistani army an opportunity to destroy a large amount of Taliban assets, but the Taliban fighters will largely stay out of reach. Spring will bring a standoff with the northern tribes, who along with the southern tribes will demand that the Pakistani army leave Taliban areas. Also with spring the Pakistani army will face the beginning of major gorilla operations in Southern Waziristan, carried out against them by all Taliban groups.

  • tyrone says:

    “Can anyone please tell me from where these AQ and Taliban gets support for War??”
    Usman, Depends on exactly which group. Here are a list of several sources of income to Taliban / AQ in no particular order (and the exact source varies from tribe to tribe, place to place): 1) drug production and trafficing, 2) Iran and perhaps other states (Syria? Libia?), 3) Islamic charities specifically set up around the world to channel all or part of their collections to Islamic fascists, 4) taxes they collect in areas they control (for example, Waziristan), 5) theft (hijackings, bank robberies, extortion in controlled areas, taking over people’s houses and possessions in war zones), 6) semi-legitiment businesses which they control 7) ransoms for kidnapping victims …

  • Dan A says:

    Personally, I think the delay in the offensive may have been a good idea. First, it has allowed them to build up forces in the area. It also gave a bit of time to do some softening up with air and drone strikes. But the biggest thing is that the upcoming winter means that the Pakistanis have already determined how long the fighting season will last. Very limited time for the taliban to conduct a sustained counterattack, and limited time to demoralize the army. It’ll be a long winter to have thousands of militants in South Waziristan while their main population centers, maybe a lot of them will have to wait out the cold in North Waziristan.

  • Scott says:

    The Pakistan military have a lot to prove before I’ll accept that this is it.

  • xavier says:

    Taliban gets support in the form of drug money. AQ already has good amount of funds available. Other fringe groups get support from Islamic charity from all over Pakistan and oil-rich middle east.

  • Usman says:

    Thank you very much Tyrone and Xavier, its very helpfull for my knowledge.
    Does that mean these extremists have basis in ever muslim country like Iran, Middle east, Syria, Libya etc not only in Pak and Afghan?

  • Xavier says:

    I meant especially point out Pak-expats from mid-east. Most of the money comes from Saudi and Dubai as I understand it.
    Iran may be excluded from this as it is Shia and does not have large Pakistani expats. I am not sure anyone in Syria and Lybia are remotely interested in sending money to Pakistan, but there were people from these countries eager to fight Soviets and after that US.
    Now I do not know if it is right to hold Saudi responsible if Pak-expats send money to Pak.
    Saudis, however can be blamed for funding Taliban (pre-9/11) for their hunting grounds.
    You are ignoring TTP collecting taxes in NWFP, drug money and donations from within Pakistan.

  • Civy says:

    Just for perspective – at Khe Sanh they lost 15,000 and we ~ 300, depending on who’s doing the counting.
    Let’s hope the Pakis aren’t too proud to call in some B-52 strikes when the Taliban finally stand and fight en’masse. Taking the 2 months before, 2 months after and month of Tet, we lost more KIA than in 8 yrs fighting the GWOT.
    Lyndon Johnson could have made Obama’s “tough” Afghan policy decision while taking his morning Constitution. What a load of to-do about nothing.

  • Civy says:

    I send lots of money right to the Taliban and AlQueda every time I gas up my Honda. I assume the Royal Saudi family protects the big money contributors who are funneling money to these guys or we would have assassinated them by now – or are we that clueless?
    As of last month we had most stored natural gas on record right here in the US. Even if it wasn’t ~ $0.50 a gallon equivalent, I’d rather send my fuel $$$ to Oklahoma, Texas and Arkansas than lose those $$$ and jobs to rich Arabs who hate our guts and fund our destruction. VW’s 200 mpg L1 car would cut them off at the knees too. Whatever it takes. Live so as to make the mid-east irrelevant again. Now there’s a motto to live by!

  • Neo says:

    We are drifting a little off topic, but I should clear up a misconception about Saudi Oil. Most of our oil comes from Venezuela, Nigeria, Mexico, and Kuwait. Relatively little actually comes from Saudi Arabia and none from Iran. It still impacts us just the same, oil is on the world market and any impact on a significant producer affects everyone.
    I understand the sentiment though. It is one of the reasons I heat my house with (Canadian) gas rather than fuel oil.


Islamic state



Al shabaab

Boko Haram