Hakeemullah and Waliur Rehman Mehsud, before the Pakistani Army launched the South Waziristan offensive.
The Taliban leadership and the bulk of its fighters have eluded the Pakistani military during the current operation in South Waziristan.
The Pakistani military had billed the South Waziristan offensive, which was launched in the eastern half of the Taliban-controlled tribal agency on Oct. 17, as the decisive battle that would break the back of the group. Instead, the leadership of the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan, including its leader Hakeemullah Mehsud and its South Waziristan commander Waliur Rehman Mehsud, have escaped to neighboring tribal areas, and the terror attacks in Pakistan continue.
The military has claimed that more than 550 Taliban fighters and 70 soldiers have been killed during fierce fighting in South Waziristan. The information cannot be confirmed, as it is filtered through the Army’s Inter-Services Public Relations branch because reporters have been barred from the battle zone, save for escorted day trips.
The South Waziristan operation has involved more than 30,000 regular Army and Frontier Corps troops backed by artillery, attack helicopters, and Pakistani Air Force ground attack fighters. At the outset of the operation, the Army claimed that more than 10,000 Taliban fighters backed by 1,500 foreign fighters, largely from Central Asia, were dug into the region and prepared to wage a pitched battle to defend their turf.
But instead, the Taliban chose to preserve their forces rather than sacrifice them to the advancing Pakistani Army, US military and intelligence officials who closely monitor the region told The Long War Journal. Previous operations in South Waziristan have involved fewer forces and were often led by the poorly trained and equipped paramilitary Frontier Corps, which allowed the Taliban to stand and fight.
“This time, it was clear the Army meant business, and like any smart guerilla force, the Taliban decided not to blunt their best forces while fighting a losing battle,” one official said. “They learned from Swat,” the official continued, referring to the Army’s spring and summer offensive that resulted in thousands of Taliban fighters killed or captured.
The Taliban were aided by a long delay in the launch of the South Waziristan operation. The military initially claimed it was moving into South Waziristan in force in mid-June, but instead the plan was changed, and the Army decided to blockade the region and hit Taliban bases with air and artillery strikes. Several US officials contacted by The Long War Journal believe the delay in the offensive’s ground phase was engineered by pro-Taliban elements within the military to allow the leadership the time needed to escape the offensive.
“Not one single senior Taliban leader has been killed or captured so far,” a senior official said. “I don’t think this was by accident.”
Instead of going toe-to-toe with the Army, Hakeemullah left a dedicated rearguard of fighters behind in South Waziristan to slow the Army advance and “buy time for its forces to reestablish command and control in the alternate locations,” outside of South Waziristan, a US official said.
The Taliban did put up some strong resistance in the towns of Kotkai, Kanigoram, a region inhabited by Uzbek fighters, and at several other locations during the early stages of the offensive. Kotkai exchanged hands several times, while large clashes were reported in and around Kanigoram. But after these battles the Taliban ceded the important strongholds of Ladha, Makeen, and Sararogha with relatively little resistance.
While the Pakistani military has said the Taliban have been defeated in South Waziristan and attribute the success to better tactics, US officials observe that the Taliban’s decision to conduct a tactical withdrawal is the reason for the military’s relatively bloodless success.
“The Taliban in Swat, which is far less capable than their counterparts in South Waziristan, put up a tougher fight and delayed the Army’s advance for months,” one official said.
“The South Waziristan Taliban have been fighting the Army since 2004 and have experience fighting NATO forces in Afghanistan,” the official continued “They are better trained and armed. The reality is that Hakeemullah decided it was wiser to live to fight another day.”
Pakistani Army has some success in South Waziristan
But US officials were quick to praise the Pakistani Army for launching the offensive in the first place and said the operation, at least in the short run, has denied the Taliban and al Qaeda the safe haven in the region.
“This is an area the Pakistani Army has dodged for years,” one official said. “It became a Taliban and al Qaeda haven because the Army has not wanted to go in and take them head on.”
Pakistani Army tactics have improved as the military better used close air support and patiently moved to take the high ground and strategic points before advancing into towns.
“Had the Taliban decided to stay and fight en masse, the military still would have had success, their tactics were by and large sound,” a US military officer said. “But again, they over-relied on artillery and leveled entire towns. If they aren’t quick about rebuilding they will have major problems.”
In the course of the operation, the Pakistani Army uncovered several Taliban and al Qaeda training facilities in the region. At one site, passports belonging to one of the 9/11 plotters and the wife of a senior al Qaeda operative in Europe were among several that were found.
The questions that remain unanswered are: Will the military stay in the region? Will the returning Mehsud tribesmen support the Army’s occupation? And will the Taliban return to launch a much-touted guerilla campaign during the winter and spring?
Taliban skip the Army net intact
While the operation has succeeded in denying a safe haven for the Taliban and al Qaeda in the Mehsud tribal areas in South Waziristan, the leaders and the vast majority for the fighters have either melted away with the more than 400,000 refugees who have fled the fight, or have sought shelter in neighboring tribal regions. Taliban leaders and large numbers of fighters have left the Mehsud tribal areas in South Waziristan and have found shelter with allied Taliban groups in Arakzai, Kurram, Hangu, Khyber, and North and South Waziristan.
In North Waziristan, the Taliban have regrouped in the town of Shawal, according to a report in AKI. Hafiz Gul Bahadar, the leader of the Taliban in North Waziristan, is “hosting the families of two top Pakistani Taliban leaders,” The New York Times reported last week. Bahadar is hosting the families of Hakeemullah and Waliur Rehman, a senior US military intelligence official told The Long War Journal.
In South Waziristan, Taliban fighters have sought shelter with Mullah Nazir in the Wazir tribal areas, and the rearguard fighters still opposing the Army’s advance into the Mehsud areas are receiving support from Nazir’s forces, US military and intelligence officials told The Long War Journal.
The support by Bahadar and Nazir highlights a major problem with the offensive’s limited scope and the military’s reliance on “peace agreements” with neighboring Taliban leaders that allowed the offensive to take place. Just before the offensive began, the Army cut a deal with Bahadar and Nazir that allowed the military to move through their tribal areas without being attacked. One of the conditions of the agreement requires Bahadar and Nazir not to provide shelter to fleeing members of the Mehsud branch of the Taliban. The violations of these agreements go unpunished, and the Taliban leadership survives to fight another day.
Large elements of the Taliban have relocated to Arakzai, as well as to regions in Kurram and Hangu [see LWJ report, “Pakistani military hits Taliban in Arakzai“].
“Arakzai is the traditional power base of Hakeemullah, so it makes sense that he would go there if threatened,” a senior military intelligence official told The Long War Journal.
Hakeemullah was the commander of Taliban forces in Arakzai and Kurram prior to taking control of the terror alliance after the death of its former leader, Baitullah Mehsud, in August. Hakeemullah is known to have an operations center in Ghiljo in Arakzai. Some of the most deadly Taliban groups operate from Arakzai, and many of the suicide and military attacks carried out in Pakistan have originated from this tribal agency.
Taliban forces have also relocated to the Jamrud, Bara, and Tirah Valley regions in the Khyber tribal agency, according to US officials.
“The Taliban are using these alternate hubs to launch its terror offensive against Pakistan’s major cities, particularly Peshawar, the provincial capital,” a senior military intelligence official said. The Taliban have pounded Peshawar with suicide attacks against police, the military, and civilians. One such attack leveled the headquarters of the Inter-Services Intelligence agency, while others have hit police stations, checkpoints, and even crowded bazaars. Anti-Taliban tribal leaders and politicians have been the targets of a Taliban assassination campaign.
Military forced to address Taliban escape from South Waziristan
The Taliban’s escape from South Waziristan and their continued terror offensive have forced the Army to conduct operations where it did not plan to. But the offensives are limited in scope, and will not dislodge the Taliban from these areas, US officials said.
“The Pakistani Army thought they could strike a single blow and cripple the Taliban, but they can’t,” a military officer said. “This problem has always been bigger than South Waziristan.”
The Army has focused on the Shahu Khel regions in Arakzai and Hangu, and has already claimed success. The offensive consisted largely of artillery and air strikes against known Taliban hideouts and training camps.
In Bara, the military is conducting yet another operation aimed at the Lashkar-e-Islam in the Bara region, a radical group allied with the Taliban.
Army seeking to avoid other Taliban havens in North and South Waziristan
While the Army is conducting limited operations in Arakzai, Hangu, and Khyber, its top spokesman has signaled that success in South Waziristan means that Nazir, Bahadar, the Haqqani Network, and other powerful Taliban groups will not need to be tackled.
“You have defeated the main, strongest terrorist organization of the area and it will create effects all around,” Major General Athar Abbas told Reuters on Nov. 18.
“It creates voids all around and will open more options for the state and military,” Abbas continued. “Maybe you don’t have to conduct more operations. By those effects you can achieve those objectives.”
Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD’s Long War Journal.