By Brig Asif Haroon Raja
After two years and seven months of sustained pressure, the US seems to have finally succeeded in cornering Pakistan and making it agree to launch an operation in North Waziristan (NW). Pak Army has been reluctant to do so because of its genuine constraints. Notwithstanding the numerous disadvantages of the intended operation which I have been enumerating in my articles, it cannot be ignored that NW now houses all sorts of anti-state terrorist groups, most on the payroll of foreign agencies. These include, TTP, Punjabi Taliban, remnants of al-Qaeda, elements of Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, Khurasan group, Asian Tigers, Jaish-e-Muhammad, late Ilyas Kashmiri group and some others. Some say there are over thirty groups in NW. Most of the groups have got affiliated with TTP or al-Qaeda. All high profile terrorist attacks since 2010 have emanated from NW. Hafiz Gul Bahadur and Sirajuddin-Badruddin Haqqani brothers or for that matter Mullah Omar based in Kandahar have little control over them but are sympathetic towards TTP. These groups operate for money only or in revenge for having been denied Jihad in Kashmir. Some harbor the dream of an Islamic caliphate while some are anti-Shia groups. Al-Qaeda has its own set of grievances against Pakistan. The US is least interested in anti-Pakistan terrorist groups but is highly concerned about Haqqani network (HN), a potent faction of Afghan Taliban movement, which it claims is responsible for its failure in Afghanistan. The US is hiding its failures behind HN and Pakistan and is punishing Pakistan. Attacks on GHQ, Mehran naval base, ISI setups, Naval College, FIA HQ, and now on Kamra airbase were all CIA-RAW sponsored and executed by TTP – an extension of CIA.
Now that an operation seems inevitable, going by the dictum of ‘sweat saves blood’, there is a need to carryout thorough preparations. Terrain in NW is extremely rugged and suited for guerrilla operations. Most villages in NW are situated on higher ground and can be easily converted into strong points and ambush sites. Few men positioned at vantage points can keep a battalion size force at length for a considerable length of time. The militants well trained in the art of guerrilla war and having learnt lessons from earlier conflicts would avoid pitched battles and instead would resort to surprise night raids, suicide attacks and maximum use of IEDs. But I wonder, after having learnt about the intended operation, the wanted groups as well as the friendly groups would wait for the Army to pounce upon them and get killed or would prefer to melt away.
Miranshah and Mir Ali being the most populous towns in NW and hub of economic and smuggling activities provides best hiding places to the militant groups. All wanted groups are residing in these towns and locals are sympathetic to them. Having got merged with the local populace, they would try their best to dissuade the locals to shift to camps so that they do not get denied of human shields during the conflict. The military is having its own fortified camp and the soldiers seldom visit the two markets without adequate protection. No vehicular move takes place without road clearance. If an operation is to be launched against these towns and areas closer to Khost border, the civil population will have to be displaced and housed in camps as was the practice in the past. The two towns are likely to get substantially damaged and would require heavy finances to rebuild them. While the rehabilitation and rebuilding of destroyed NW and healing the injured feelings of the affected people would take a very long time, it will take no time for the US to bounce back and express its dissatisfaction over the outcome and asking Pakistan to do more.
In my view our intelligence coverage in whole of FATA is weak. The burden of intelligence collection is borne by the deployed units which have limited means. Had our intelligence network been strong and effective, it would not have allowed so many anti-Pakistan groups to mushroom in NW. It should have nabbed the teams receiving training in NW for the impending attack, or in the forward operating bases in the vicinity of target area, where they collected arms and from where they carried out reconnaissance. Intelligence Bureau, Military Intelligence, FIA, CID, and Special Police need to coordinate their internal intelligence activities, while the ISI should focus on foreign agencies.
In order to cure this grey area, there is a need to establish full fledged intelligence HQ under Maj Gen with its tentacles located in each tribal agency and troubled settled regions of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. In the wake of planned operation, maximum intelligence assets should be concentrated in NW to sift friend from foe. Double dealers, fence sitters, neutrals and pro-Pakistan elements must be identified, won over and protected. Those on the payroll of foreign agencies must be marked. Their sources of funding and supply routes and hiding places should be traced. This preliminary exercise of sanitization is necessary to prepare a level ground for a successful operation.
Military Operations Directorate should assess whether the concept of enter-capture-hold-build and transfer applied in Swat and SW will be applicable in NW since the latter is in occupation of over a division sized force since long. It should be seen whether old pattern of multi-pronged attacks would be feasible or a change is required. In Swat, the enemy was Fazlullah led Taliban fighting on their home ground and there were no pro-government militant groups. In Bajaur Maulvi Faqir led Taliban fought the Frontier Corps on their home ground. In SW, the military faced the main base of TTP led by Hakimullah Mehsud on their home ground, while Maulvi Nazir group stayed neutral and his area of influence was used as the operational base by the Army. Hakimullah had urged Gul Bahadur to join his battle and he seemed inclined to come to his aid. When pressed by security forces to honor his peace deal, he quipped, ‘What is the guarantee that he will not be the next target’? Reportedly, he restrained himself only when he was assured that no military operation would be undertaken in NW. The Army could conduct a three pronged offensive in SW from three directions because of cooperation of Nazir and Bahadur, both not part of TTP.
In case of NW, there will be a mix of friendly and unfriendly militant groups with no clear cut demarcation. TTP will be the main enemy which will be fighting the battle on someone else’s ground. Notwithstanding that the TTP is dispersed, weakened and tactically on the defensive in FATA after its ouster from SW in 2009, however, strategically it is still on the offensive since it retains the ability to carry out small scale strikes against most sensitive and hardened targets at will anywhere in Pakistan. Attack on Kamra airbase is the recent example. It draws strength from its affiliated groups and Punjabi Taliban that are hitting targets in cities of Punjab. Foreign funding and availability of secure bases in Kunar and Nuristan has bolstered the strength of TTP from where Fazlullah’s fighters have kept Bajaur, Mehmand, Dir and Chitral turbulent. It has its mini-bases in upper Orakzai Agency, central Kurram Agency, Shawal valley connecting NW with SW, Tirah and Dara Adam Khel (DAK). These five areas can reinforce or influence the battle in NW. Death of Mullah Dadullah who had replaced Maulvi Faqir in Bajaur and Tariq Afridi heading Taliban chapter in DAK are significant, but TTP is quick in finding replacements.
The dominating Othmanzai Wazir tribe led by Hafiz Gul Bahadur is tied to peace treaty with security forces since August 2008. Sirajuddin Haqqani’s group is also friendly and has never fired upon security troops. The TTP has challenged the Army and threatened that it will resist with full force including its suicidal Fidai squads. It will however not be enjoying home ground advantage. Its rank and file is dispersed and leadership is in hiding. Hakimullah Mehsud will try to collect them together and also task DAK Taliban under a new commander to disrupt main supply route of Kohat-Bannu. Hakimullah must also be convincing Gul Bahadur and Sirajuddin to join hands with him and fight the decisive battle jointly. Bahadur is already highly bitter over drone attacks and feels the government is doing little to stop this menace. Hakimullah must also be trying to persuade Maulvi Nazir to shelve peace treaty and pick up arms against the troops deployed in SW and prevent them from launching a pincer along Ladha-Makeen-Razmak axis or from reinforcing NW garrison. CIA and RAW on their part must be playing their dirty tricks since it is to their advantage if anti-US groups turn their guns towards Pak security forces and make the task of ISAF easier.
Hafiz Gul Bahadur, Sirajuddin and Maulvi Nazir should be convinced to detach themselves from anti-Pakistan groups and to help in motivating the people to cooperate with the military. Without their intimate cooperation and public support, the intended operation may not fetch desired results. Greater number of Lashkars armed with sophisticated weapons should be activated. Escape routes to Afghanistan should be cordoned off to prevent TTP members from fleeing to Afghanistan and activating another sanctuary in neighboring Afghan province. Reinforcement routes from adjacent agencies should also be blocked. Media cell should be activated to show the ugly face of the terrorists involved in heinous crimes and anti-Islamic practices and to depict the soldiers as good Muslims and friends of patriotic people. Wrongful projection of soldiers as infidels and on the payroll of USA by TTP leaders should be countered. Psy warfare should be launched to win public support and to strike terror into the hearts of militants. Full pressure should be exerted on USA to stop counterproductive drone attacks and steps taken to isolate TTP. Proper camps should be set up in advance with adequate facilities to house displaced persons. Those deciding to stay behind should act as ears and eyes of the Army rather than the militants. Relief and rehabilitation program should be readied in advance.
Commanding officers should be chosen with due care and only those units that have gained sufficient experience in low intensity conflict should be selected for the operation. All combat soldiers to be provided life jackets and night vision goggles and logistics requirements meticulously worked out. Communication security and wireless/telephone discipline should be ensured, while conversation of foes monitored. Operation should be intelligence guided, selective and targeted and short in duration. There should be bare minimum collateral damage to civilians since civilian casualties might impel Gul Bahadur to change sides. We must not forget the US-western media war duly supplemented by Asma Jahangir and her types accusing our soldiers of human rights violations in Swat after Operation Rah-e-Raast. A video showing soldiers gunning down captives was released. The case has yet not been closed.
If the US thinks that terrorism in Af-Pak region will get eliminated with the launching of an operation in NW, or its defeat in Afghanistan will get converted into victory, it is sadly mistaken. The intended operation will give a reason to all the militant groups in Pakistan to join hands with Afghan Taliban to fight conjointly rather than fighting in separate compartments or staying neutral. The US intentions can be gauged from the fact that on one hand it is pressing Pakistan to mount an operation against HN, and on the other it is offering to hand over control of Paktia, Khost and Paktika provinces to HN if it desists from attacking American forces in Afghanistan. This offer is yet another proof of America’s duality and an indication that it is fighting this war to serve its own interests only and cares two hoots for Pakistan’s interests. In the backdrop of hidden designs of the US to build a unified militant front against Pakistan, why shouldn’t we turn the tables on USA? Although it has dangerous repercussions, but in the face of the dice loaded heavily in our disfavor, it is a food for thought for our military planners.
I have a hunch that after NW; another venue would be propped up for a military operation. Already reports are in circulation that Punjabi Taliban feeling neglected in NW have started shifting to Multan and it is speculated that Multan region will be the next battleground. We also must not forget that once the ISAF departs, bulk of the weight of terrorism will fall upon Pakistan. I therefore do not foresee war on terror coming to an end in the foreseeable future.