Date: 4/13/2004


..................Mission impossible

Wilson John %2Etxt&counter_img=3

....................14th April 2004

The 12-day military operation by Pakistan Army in south Waziristan last month, ostensibly to hunt down the Al Qaeda and Taliban elements, has been a visible failure which could dramatically alter the already existing faultlines in the force divided between loyalty to Pakistan President General Pervez Musharraf, the nation and the religion.

South Waziristan is one of the seven areas-Khyber, Kurram, Orakzai, Mohmand, Bajaur, North and South Waziristan-which were clubbed together as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) by the British who wanted a buffer zone between undivided India and Afghanistan. The topography is rugged and remote, a staggering chain of dry, barren mountains marked by deep ravines and valleys. The area remained out of bounds for the Pakistani Army for almost a century till the first reconnaissance teams were despatched after the US decided to launch Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan to oust the Taliban following the September 11 attack.

In the current operations, the Pakistani Army deployed more than 75,000 troops in addition to scores of tribal lashkars (armies) along a 2,400-km long border. Most of the troops deployed were part of the Two Corps deployed on the western borders and the Frontier Corps (FC) which is a paramilitary force led by officers deputed from the Army. The men are recruited from the local area, and are therefore conversant with the language, regional mores and topography. The basic handicap the FC troops had was that they were not trained for a military operation, to say nothing of counter-insurgency. So far, their predominant role has been to check smuggling, especially drugs and contraband, and to intervene in tribal feuds.

Drugs have been a major problem after the fall of the Taliban. Before its collapse, 1,685 acres in the region were under poppy cultivation which shot up to 30750 acres within a year. The area, after the US entry, has also become a transit for fake American currency smuggling. Recently, the authorities seized 76000 fake US dollars which were printed in Singapore and were being routed through the tribal areas to the mainland. As for the Army, the first time the troops entered the area openly was in 2001, when the US wanted Pakistan to help the coalition forces in Afghanistan. Their mission, at that time, was to seal the Pakistan-Afghan border-the Durand Line-so that the Taliban and the Al Qaeda elements fleeing US bombing could be trapped and caught or killed.

The tribals did not oppose the Army's entry as they considered it the national army and did not perceive the troops as a threat to their sovereignty. The October-December 2001 operation was based on the "hammer and anvil" strategy. The US-led coalition forces were to aggressively pursue the Taliban and the Al Qaeda elements towards the Durand Line, since most of them were holed up in the mountains close to the border, where the Pakistani troops would trap them.

The operation was partially successful but left much to be desired. Not all those who fled US bombing could be stopped at Durand Line; scores escaped the net and fanned out across Pakistan, including some of the top commanders of the Al Qaeda, Khalid Mohammad Sheikh (caught months later in Rawalpindi in the house of a religious leader, protected by a Major and his willing seniors), Ramzi bin al-shibh (caught from Karachi after a gun battle) and Abu Zubeydah (nabbed in from Peshawar after US intelligence agencies intercepted his satellite phone calls to Al Qaeda members).

In one way, the failure of the operation outweighed its limited success as many of those who escaped the dragnet joined hands with religious extremist and terrorist groups operating within Pakistan to attack western targets, one of whom was American journalist Daniel Pearl. What should have alarmed the authorities (it did not) was the fact that several Army officers deployed in the area were more keen to let the Taliban and the Al Qaeda elements escape rather than confront the tribal communities-more out of sympathy than any other factor.

At least 30 per cent of the Pak istani Army is drawn from the North-West Frontier Province. Although the Pakistan Army has Two Corps on the western borders, it has no traditional supply or logistic lines in the tribal areas like South Waziristan. In any case, the primary role of the two corps in the west is to act as reserve formations to support the Seven Corps deployed on the eastern front (India).

It would be wrong to say that the Pakistani Army was completely alien to the area prior to October 2001. In fact, the Inter Services Intelligence, the Pakistani Army and the US intelligence and security forces raised local guerrilla brigades, in these areas to fight the Soviet forces occupying Afghanistan in the early 1980s.

During the Afghan jihad, in fact, the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan ceased to exist as the region was turned into a main supply route for the jihadis.

Ironically, similar factors were responsible for the failure of the operations in South Waziristan. The operational plan this time too was "hammer and anvil" with the US-led coalition troops numbering 13,500 lined up along Paktika (Afghanistan)-Waziristan border acting as "hammer" (Operation Mountain Storm) and 75,000 Pakistani security forces assuming the role of "anvil".

This was the first fatal flaw. The American coalition, fighting a resurgent Taliban and a group of 30 warlords who refused to align with them, failed to move up the mountains, which the intelligence agencies have been claiming sheltered Osama bin Laden, and other top leaders of the Al Qaeda. The result was that the Pakistani troops were asked to aggressively pursue the terrorist groups sheltering in their side of the border. There were two reasons why this sudden turnabout had disastrous fallout. First, the Army had no specific intelligence about the so-called terrorist elements and their movements.

Many of those who are called terrorists (by the US) are the ones who had been part of the US jihad in Afghanistan in the 1980s and had settled in the region after marrying local women. There are certainly others who had come to Afghanistan from different corners of the world to fight the US forces and remained in the safe environs of the tribal areas where they could buy protection. Besides, the region is populated with Afghan refugees which made it extremely difficult to distinguish terrorist elements from the civilian population.

Second was the decision to deploy heavy artillery (mortars, shoulder-fired rocket- propelled guns, heavy machine guns, RR guns) in an area of 50 sq km which was cordoned off. The terrorists and their tribal supporters are masters of guerrilla warfare, hardened by years of ambush, raid and concealment. For the Pakistani Army, trained to fight another conventionally trained Army in the east, the decision proved disastrous as the gun battle left at least 46 troops dead and scores injured. When eight soldiers were ambushed and executed and more than a dozen civilians and FC non-commissioned officers were captured, the authorities were forced to call in combat helicopters to take out the terrorists. (There are also reports that at one time the commanders had even thought of calling for air raids-getting Chinese A5 fighters from the Peshawar base.)

The deployment of gunships within the borders signalled a major military failure which only became worse when one helicopter raid killed 16 civilians, including 13 women and children, forcing the commanders to withdraw the US-supplied Apache helicopters and seek help from the tribal leaders to settle the issue. It is not difficult to predict what the heavy casualty and the mission failure could generate in an army which has been at the receiving end of proxy commands from Pentagon, leaving many in the officer corps infuriated, dissatisfied with their General and turning to "Faith, piety and jihad in the Way of Allah"-the motto of the Pakistan Army.