“No patchwork scheme – and all our present and recent schemes…will settle the Waziristan problem. Not until the military steam-roller has passed over the country from end to end will there be peace.”
- Lord Curzon, Viceroy of India
After defeating the Taliban in the Swat Valley this week, Pakistan’s government intends to follow Lord Curzon’s hundred year old piece of advice and launch a follow-up invasion of Waziristan.
“The final battle will be fought in South Waziristan,” said Asad Munir, a former head of militia intelligence for the tribal areas.
Divided into a north and south parts for administrative purposes, Waziristan, a tribal agency on Pakistan’s western border with Afghanistan, is that country’s most pro-Taliban area and the heart of the insurgency threatening its existence. This mountainous, tribal-ruled area, where the government’s writ does not extend, also serves as a base area for the Islamist forces fighting American and NATO troops across the border in Afghanistan.
But Waziristan’s importance in the radical Islamists’ scheme of things extends far beyond the local and regional. This largely inacessible piece of geography, which constitutes 4,500 square miles and has a population of about 800,000, also poses a deadly threat to the West and the rest of the world.
Long known as a center of Islamic terrorism, it is home to al Qaeda, and, reportedly, of bin Laden himself. It is here the terrorist organization hatches and directs its deadly plots, and receives and trains international jihadists from around the world, including some from the United States.
Even more menacing, Waziristan is also the headquarters of al Qaeda’s planned worldwide jihad. From this rugged, isolated area, it eventually intends to launch a military campaign that will see its army and extremist brand of Islam sweep westwards to the Atlantic Ocean and eastwards to Indonesia and the Philipines.
But of most concern to Pakistanis, Waziristan is the heartland of the Pakistani Taliban and the center of the violent efforts to destabilize their country. It is here that Baitullah Mehsud, head of the Pakistani Taliban, orchestrated the murder of Benazir Bhutto and where most suicide bombings and other acts of terrorism and Islamic militancy plaguing Pakistan originate.
To indicate the Pakistani government’s seriousness about defeating the Taliban and its al Qaeda allies, for the first time in Pakistan’s history it has placed more troops on Pakistan’s western border than on its eastern front facing arch-enemy India. This is also the result of a deal brokered by President Obama, in which India pledged not to increase its border troop strength as Pakistan transferred thousands of its soldiers from east to west.
In a preliminary move to the upcoming offensive, according to one military publication, a whole army division is currently taking up positions to occupy the roads in Waziristan. This will deny the Taliban and its al Qaeda allies, who possess many cars and SUVs, the means to mass their fighters. The Islamists will thus be forced to use the back mountain trails, a much more time consuming process.
Nevertheless, it is not expected to be an easy campaign, lasting only a few weeks, like the recently concluded one in Swat.
In contrast to that campaign, the Pakistani Taliban and al Qaeda, military experts say, have had years to dig in and build fortifications in Waziristan.
The al Qaeda fighters also appear to be numerous and are receiving foreign reinforcements to help defend their Waziristan stronghold. The Los Angeles Times reported that four disillusioned European al Qaeda recruits, who returned recently from Waziristan, said they had trained with an Arab group numbering 300 to 500.
An Asia Times story also states Afghan and American security officials have noticed a movement of jihadists from the Middle East to South Asia. US Army Major Cory Schultz, based in Afghanistan, is also quoted as saying: “It sounds from the radio chatter like they have more recruits coming in, including Arabs, Uzbeks, Turkmen, and Chechen fighters.”
The Pakistani army, numbered at about 125,000 for the offensive, will probably rely on its helicopter gunships and artillery, like it did in the Swat fighting. The Taliban and al Qaeda have little answer to these weapons except suicide bombers. Military analysts expect the Pakistani army to drive the Islamist fighters towards American and NATO troops in Afghanistan in a classic hammer and anvil manoeuvre.
The Pakistani Taliban’s strategy is probably to draw out the campaign longer than the predicted three to four months and cause enough army casualties that the government will call it off and make a deal. The Taliban knows it cannot stand up to a modern army and that its tribal fighters will melt away, as tribal fighters always do, when they start losing and taking heavy casualties.
The rugged Waziristan terrain is conducive to the Taliban’s strategy, as it has been described as perfect for protracted guerrilla warfare. The hardcore, fanatical Taliban and al Qaeda fighters, some of whom are highly trained and well-armed, are also expected to fight fiercely, since their backs are to the wall.
Besides forming the anvil part of the operation, the American military will provide ordnance and intelligence to the Pakistani army. The American military is also jamming the local FM radio stations in the tribal territories that play an important role in spreading the Taliban’s radicalizing messages. The Pakistani army has also received similar, American-supplied equipment for the same purpose.
According to the failed European jihadists and other sources, American forces have already contributed to the Waziristan campaign’s success with its ongoing Predator drone attacks. So many al Qaeda and Taliban leaders and operatives have been killed by the Predator’s Hellfire missiles that they meet in groups of no larger than three to drink tea. So fearful are they of being targeted for drone attacks, al Qaeda fighters, it is reported, now receive their instruction indoors.
Lord Curzon said he did not want to be the one to set the military steamroller in motion in Waziristan and luckily did not have to do so. But for Pakistan, and American and NATO forces in Afghanistan, the British lord rightly foresaw it is the only way to achieve peace.