Pakistan scaling back its plans for Waziristan offensive

McClatchy NewspapersJuly 10, 2009 

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Pakistan's forthcoming military operation in Waziristan will rely on air power rather than on ground offensives, an approach that isn't likely to eliminate the homegrown extremists and probably will disappoint Western allies, according to Pakistani officials and analysts.

The Pakistani army is wrapping up its operation against Taliban militants in the Swat valley, just 100 miles northwest of Islamabad, the capital, and will move shortly against the fountainhead of the Pakistani Taliban movement in Waziristan, which is about 240 miles to the southwest, on the Afghan border

However, while the Swat offensive saw some 20,000 ground troops sweep across the area and surrounding districts, the plan for Waziristan, a region that plays host to al Qaida commanders and is strategically important to the West, is for a wholly different type of operation.

Artillery, jet fighters and attack helicopters will be used to wear down the Islamist guerrillas, but ground forces will play a limited role in the mountainous landscape of Waziristan, which strongly favors guerrilla warfare and where the Taliban are deeply entrenched, the officials and analysts said. U.S. pilotless drones, which are armed with missiles and sophisticated technology to home in on individuals, might augment Pakistani air power.

The operation is unlikely to destroy the enemy, however, and will leave in place some Taliban warlords whom the United States and its NATO allies in Afghanistan regard as a significant cross-border threat. It will raise questions about the seriousness of Pakistan's fight against insurgents after the country won international praise for its concerted efforts in Swat.

"The nature of the operation is totally different from what we did in Swat," said a senior Pakistani security official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. "It is just blocking the entrance. Nothing goes in, nothing comes out. We'll keep punishing (the enemy) with long arms, air (power), Cobra (helicopters).

"The tactics have been reversed. Initially they (the Taliban) used to wear us out; now the army is planning to wear them out."

The operation is limited to the South Waziristan area _known as an "agency" of the country's tribal territory — even though Pakistani Taliban also control North Waziristan. In South Waziristan, the offensive is aimed solely at the large area that warlord Baitullah Mehsud controls, the head of the main faction of Pakistani Taliban. Ground forces already have been sent to surround the area.

"It won't be the army physically moving and attacking, with your combat power dwindling with each passing day, and the need to put in additional" troops, the security official said, adding that the military couldn't afford to open up more than one front.

Officially, the Pakistani army has refused to comment on the nature of the Waziristan offensive, the number of troops involved or when it will begin. The army has said only that the operation is in its "preliminary stages."

A security expert who's knowledgeable about Pakistan's plans said that the aim of the South Waziristan move was to "disrupt" and "punish" Mehsud's network, not to engage in a ground battle that could lead to significant casualties among soldiers. He said ground troops would be used for "search and cordon" incursions against high-value targets: Mehsud and his senior commanders. The expert asked not to be identified, as he wasn't authorized to speak publicly on the matter.

Pakistani jets have been pounding militants' positions for almost four weeks in South Waziristan, and U.S. drone aircraft have been used — seemingly in close coordination with Pakistan — to target Mehsud's group, killing dozens. A suspected drone strike Friday in Mehsud's area was at least the seventh such American attack since June 23.

A complication with the army's plan in South Waziristan is the possibility of casualties among the region's 500,000 civilians, particularly other members of the Mehsud tribe. Despite the warnings about the offensive, surprisingly few people have left the area. The army expects no more than 70,000 to flee — compared with an epic 2 million-person exodus from Swat — and has expressed confidence that it can avoid civilian casualties in South Waziristan by precision targeting.

The perils of operating in the region were laid bare last month, when a Pakistani army convoy was ambushed in North Waziristan while passing through a narrow valley, resulting in the deaths of at least 23 soldiers.

According to news reports, the army hadn't provided air cover as the convoy moved through an area that a supposedly "friendly" Taliban warlord, Gul Bahadur, controlled. He subsequently declared that he'd stage more attacks, allying himself with Mehsud, but the army has insisted that it won't extend hostilities to North Waziristan.

"There are no plans to extend the operation to North Waziristan," army spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas said in Islamabad this week. "The operation in South Waziristan is against a terrorist group, not against a tribe or an agency."

Pakistan has mounted multiple offensives in Waziristan since 2004 under U.S. pressure, but it agreed to a truce each time, which left the militants in control. In 2007, Mehsud's men surrounded an army convoy and kidnapped some 200 soldiers, who were released after protracted negotiations. The military has signed three secret peace deals with Mehsud in the past, the most recent in February 2008. While the army appears to be more determined this time, many locals remain skeptical, and some military experts said that ground forces were necessary.

"If it's not going to be a ground forces operation, then the foot soldiers of the Taliban will remain. They have to go in, quickly and efficiently, do the job and then pull out to re-establish the civilian writ," said Javed Husain, a retired brigadier formerly with the Special Services Group, a Pakistani commando unit, who said he didn't know the details of the offensive. "It's a ridiculous thought that air power (alone) can win it."

Pakistan is anxious that its forces not be overextended, a danger from an all-out Waziristan offensive. Although the Swat operation is largely over — the government announced this week that those displaced by the fighting there could start returning Monday — the army has pledged to keep a presence there for at least a year.

Elsewhere in the tribal area, there are frequent skirmishes and continuing fallout from an earlier operation against Taliban in the Bajaur and Mohmand areas. Four security personnel were killed Friday in an attack on a checkpoint in Bajaur. The military later bombarded the area with fighter jets.

(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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