Taliban retake town from Pakistani Army in South Waziristan

The Taliban have stalled the Pakistani Army’s advance on one of its three major fronts in South Waziristan and retaken a town captured by the Army just yesterday.

Taliban fighters forced the Army from the town of Kotkai just one day after the military said it was secured. The Taliban claimed the Army took heavy casualties as it was ejected from Kotkai.

The retaking of Kotkai is the first visible victory for the group since the military launched its three-pronged offensive aimed at the Taliban heartlands in South Waziristan. More than 28,000 soldiers are pitted against more than 10,000 of the Taliban’s best fighters.

“We gave them a really tough time in Kotkai,” Azam Tariq, the new spokesman for the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan, told McClatchy . Between 40 and 45 Pakistani soldiers and three Taliban fighters were killed in the counteroffensive, Tariq claimed.

Kotkai is the home town of Hakeemullah Mehsud, the leader of the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan, and Qari Hussain Mehsud, Hakeemullah’s senior lieutenant and trainer of suicide bombers.

Local Pakistani intelligence officials confirmed that the Army was beaten back from Kotkai but claimed only six soldiers and a major were killed during the heavy fighting.

The outcome of the battle cannot be confirmed as the military has prevented reporters from entering the war zone.

The Taliban’s ability to eject a conventional force from the town is an ominous sign, observed a senior US military intelligence official who closely monitors the situation in Pakistan’s northwest.

“They [the Taliban] beat back a pretty serious offensive,” the official told The Long War Journal. “As an irregular force, that is nothing to sneer at, even with home field advantage.”

The military has indicated that it seeks a quick victory in the offensive. Pakistani officials said they hoped to subdue the Taliban in South Waziristan in two months. One report indicates, however, that the military believes air power will enable the military to crush the Taliban in two weeks.

The battle at Kotkai will pour cold water on the notion that air power will be a substitute for infantry, US officials said.

“Hopefully Kotkai will wake up the air power advocates at GHQ [Army General Headquarters],” a US military officer told The Long War Journal. “Airpower didn’t work for Israel in Lebanon in 2006, and won’t solve our problems in Afghanistan. The reality is they will need boots on the ground, and will need to keep them there for a long time if they want to have a shot.”

Army fails to win over the Mehsuds

Meanwhile the government has failed to win over the Mehsud tribes in an effort to isolate the Taliban, according to McClatchy . Yesterday, Chief of Army Staff General Ashfaq Pervez Kiyani wrote a letter to the Mehsuds attempting to explain the operation and assure the leader that the tribe was not the target.

“The aim of the ongoing operation is not to target the respectable and patriot Mehsud tribes but its purpose is to liberate the Mehsud tribes from the clutches of cruel terrorists, who have already destroyed the peace of entire area,” Kiyani wrote in a letter that was later published in the Associated Press of Pakistan. “The main targets of the operation are Uzbek terrorists, foreigners as well as local terrorists.”

“I am hopeful that the Mehsud tribes will extend all possible support to Pakistan Army and will stand up against the brute forces, so that the national flag once again flutter over the homeland of Mehsuds with all its dignity,” Kiyani continued.

The Mehsuds answered the letter, saying they would not take up arms against the Taliban. “In the current hazardous situation, it is not possible for us to support you,” the tribal leaders told the governor of the Northwest Frontier Province, according to McClatchy .

The Taliban have killed hundreds of tribal leaders in South Waziristan since taking control in 2004. The current tribal leaders either outwardly support the Taliban or are too fearful to act against them.

While the Taliban scored their two victories in South Waziristan, their suicide bombers conducted a successful strike in the heart of Pakistan. Two bombers, one of them possibly a female, detonated their suicide vests at the Islamic International University of Islamabad. Five students were killed when the bomber attacked a women’s cafeteria and a men’s sharia, or Islamic law, program.

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

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21 Comments

  • KaneKaizer says:

    Losses like this will really test their ability to stomach casualties. Let’s just hope they’re as determined as they claim to be.

  • Marlin says:

    A relatively good map of the fighting can be found at the following link.
    Iran Tracker: Waziristan Ground Operation Coverage (Pakistan October 2009)

  • jayc says:

    General Kiyani,
    Maybe you should read the following:
    “The art of using troops is this:
    When ten to the enemy’s one, surround him;
    When five times his strength, attack him;
    If double his strength, divide him;
    If equally matched you may engage him;
    If weaker numerically, be capable of withdrawing;
    And if in all respects unequal, be capable of eluding him,
    for a small force is but booty for one more powerful.”
    – Sun Tzu, the Art Of War

  • Minnor says:

    As for map, bbc south asia has a good one. It shows roads and towns.
    And yes, i don’t take what taliban says, just discard it.

  • Minnor says:

    Sorry, the bbc map i suggested seems to have errors when compared to map given by Marlin.
    LWJ editors can use wikimapia.org for more user generated information on map.

  • NS says:

    jayc,
    Sun Tzu’s advise is applicable only to those armies who genuinely want to fight their enemies.

  • Bing says:

    Kotkai seems like a classic trap and ambush from the Taliban. Wouldn’t be surprised if the outcome of this is that Kotkai will no longer exist as a habitable town in a few days, like Loesam, Bajaur before it.

  • Paul says:

    Hate to say this but the Pak army is woefully inept.
    I just don’t get all this hype about how good the Taliban are. Being compared to the Vietcong. Let me tell you something if we REALLY wanted to win this AQ/Taliban war we would, just like Vietnam.Too many arms tied behind our backs. We are too concerned about what the world thinks and I don’t know why…..these people are evil! There are ways to wipe out this whole region…who cares it’s all mountains anyway. No guts no glory.

  • Minnor says:

    As per yahoo map, there is escape route from Sararogha to interior Pakistan, and route from near sherwangi/tiarza (where battle is still on) to Afghanistan. So called months of 3 way “seige” of the Mehsud area by Pak looks false!

  • AMac says:

    From the satellite view, Kotkai looks like it’s in rocky, mountainous terrain, with only sparse tree in the surrounding area. A few small Taliban cells can presumably follow Mao’s dictum and disperse like fish in the sea, but the village and surroundings seem to support only a small population. On these grounds, this would seem like a poor choice for a stand-up fight against an enemy with air superiority. Assuming Pakistani helicopters have FLIR, guerillas outside of the village should stand out like sore thumbs, with coordinated movements well-nigh impossible.
    There’s a lot of “if’s” in that paragraph, and since the Army’s been tossed out of Kotkai, the overall analysis is obviously wrong. Poor tactics, low morale, prepared positions and IEDs, no IR sensing, SA-7s forcing air assets to keep their distance?

  • Alex says:

    What does the Pakistani Air Force/Army have in the way of close air support? It seems to me that Apaches or A-10s would be much, much more useful than the F-16s that we’ve been selling them.

  • Civy says:

    Assuming 10,000 Taliban and extensive tunneling, Paki “air superiority” doesn’t mean much. Helicopters have 1/5 the payload of an F-15 Strike Eagle or A10, and 1/20 the payload of a B1 or B52.
    A few dozen unguided rockets and an HMG are not even in the same ballpark as 108 500 lb bombs. Choppers against 100-250 determined combatants, OK. Against thousands, worthless. Remember, we had problems taking out VC tunnels in Vietnam even with B52 strikes. Forget strike aircraft and choppers. No way.
    To give an idea of the scale of the munitions used in the GWOT, we put more bombs just on the Hanoi rail yards on the first day of the Christmas bombings than we’ve dropped in ~9 yrs in Afghanistan.
    Everything about this tells me the Pakis are still thinking too small. They still think they are taking on a few malcontents, and don’t understand the firepower it takes to defeat an entrenched enemy.
    They need something like a Warthog at a minimum, and that just for CAS, not softening up or defeating en’masse. The Paki general staff should look at pictures of Grozny after the Russians got through shelling it for an idea of the scale of destruction they need to inflict to win. Probably, the top layer or two of the Paki Army needs a firing squad Stalin style. Corrupt and incompetent idiots.

  • AMac says:

    Is tunneling in a place like Kotkai and environs possible? From the satellite view, it looks very rocky. If the rock is hard and the surface is uneven (as it appears to be), this give lots of rocks to hide behind, good ambush possibilities, maybe opportunities to excavate very shallow caves. But networks of tunnels a la in the deep alluvial soil of South Vietnam seem unlikely. It would seem very hard to hide the heat signatures of a large number of men outside the village proper. But this is speculation.

  • Zeissa says:

    When fighting an entrenched guerilla enemy a force ten times as great of equal quality is necessary to win decisively… given no exceptional COIN or other circumstances/equipment.

  • Civy says:

    A fair question AMac. Given they’ve had a lot more time to prepare defenses than in the Swat Valley, and that was full of tunnels, and given the Paks must have been overrun in Kotkai, or close to it, in an area they must have easy surveillance in, it seems likely an attack was staged by massing in tunnels.
    You take the town and dig a “ranger grave” and have decent defensive position set up in an hour, right? Or are the Paks completely incompetent? You do have to wonder differently things might have gone with a few AC-130 gunships on station. It’s a cargo plane. Even the Paks should be able to fly those, or at least, swallow their pride and call the Pentagon. They need a morale booster.

  • Minnor says:

    Pak army is in no hurry. I dont take a town is taken in one day and it is then “retaken”.
    Taliban is defending Kotkai because it is intersection, and fall would make Makeen route over traffic and vulnerable.

  • Neo says:

    Major Towns in South Waziristan for anyone wanting to plot them on Google
    Wana 32.30 N, 69.57 E
    Sarwakai 32.26 N, 69.83 E
    Jandola 32.33 N, 70.12 E
    Sararogha 32.52 N, 70.03 E
    Makin 32.62 N, 69.84 E
    Razmak 32.69 N, 69.83 E (North Waz)
    Ladha 32.58 N, 69.83 E
    Old Ladha Fort 32.565 N, 69.83 E
    Kanigurram 32.52 N, 69.79 E
    Chalweshti 32.47 N, 69.70 E
    Kotkai 32.53 N, 69.57 E
    Musa Nika Ziarat 32.515 N, 69.28 E

  • my2cents says:

    AMac — Look up ‘qanat’. It’s the bases of the irrigation systems that they use.
    Geologically, the area is probably uplifted seabed, i.e. mostly sandstones. Soft enough to be able to tunnel without machinery, but strong enough that they do not need to use shoring.

  • Minnor says:

    Troops had only taken heights surrounding Kotkai. So calling taliban “retaken” the town is inappropriate. Just because Taliban does propaganda does not mean we should do the same. Kotkai was taken 3 days later nonetheless.
    Now on 10th day of op, Tarkona Narai that is road junction leading towards Afghanistan’s Shkin from mehsud area was captured from another axis.

  • Bill Roggio says:

    Minnor,
    Not according to all of the the press accounts, my sources, and even the Pakistani military, which claimed it took Kotkai last Monday, then went silent about Kotkai and then claimed it was advancing on the outer perimeter. You are free to take Maj Gen Abbas’ word for it alone, but I can show a slew of examples as to why that might not be a good idea.

  • Minnor says:

    Thanks for the reply Bill. The last report i had read was that the army took all heights surrounding Kotkai(population 5000), and the fall of kotkai to the army is imminent. But the very next day all of a sudden i read as Taliban retook Kotkai with 4 army casualties including a major. I am unable to comprehend how a town(and strategic intersection) is taken and retaken within a day, that too with just 4 casualties of a conventional army.

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