Pakistan launches crucial assault on militant stronghold

McClatchy NewspapersOctober 17, 2009 

LAHORE, Pakistan -- Pakistani military forces Saturday launched a ground offensive against the mountainous frontier stronghold of Taliban and al Qaida extremists.

The operation, which the army will be racing to complete in the next six to eight weeks, before the winter snows, targets Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the Movement of Pakistani Taliban, a group of some 10,000 armed militants based in South Waziristan, a lawless region that borders Afghanistan.

"The operation has started," said chief military spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas. In a statement, the army said four soldiers had been killed so far, and 12 had been injured.

The Pakistani army has fought three campaigns in South Waziristan since 2004, but it's been forced to withdraw each time, leaving the Taliban in greater control. The stakes are even higher now, for Pakistan and for South Asia, the United States and the West, with the Pakistan's stability in question and an invigorated terrorist network able to exact bloody revenge in the country's heartland for the assault on Waziristan.

U.S. officials warned earlier this year that the Taliban and other militant groups pose an "existential" threat to nuclear-armed Pakistan.

In an apparent attempt to derail the Waziristan offensive, at least 166 civilians and security forces personnel have been killed in a 12-day wave of suicide bombings and gun assaults that started on October 5 and struck in Punjab province, home to Pakistan's military, government and economic elite.

"The Pakistani military had to move, given all of the attacks in the past few days, probably a bit sooner than they planned," said a senior U.S. defense official, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because he isn't authorized to speak to the news media.

However, the size and scope of the assault that began Saturday suggest that officials continue to target the Pakistani Taliban on the Afghan border, not the Afghan Taliban based in their country or the Islamic extremist groups in Punjab and elsewhere, some of which Pakistan's military and intelligence services have nurtured as allies against archenemy India.

The offensive is limited to the part of South Waziristan occupied by the Mehsud tribe, which controls about half the 4,500 square-mile territory. It won't touch two Pakistani warlords, Maulvi Nazir and Gul Bahadur from the rival Wazir tribe, who send jihadists across the border to battle U.S., Afghan and NATO forces in Afghanistan.

Even so, analysts question whether the force of 30,000, made up of about two army divisions with paramilitary support from the Frontier Corps, is sufficient to tackle an entrenched and experienced enemy in rugged terrain that favors guerrilla warfare.

"The forces that the army is employing is not enough," said Javed Hussain, a retired Pakistani brigadier general who served with the Special Services Group commando unit. "The important thing is that we have to avoid getting into a guerrilla war, because a guerrilla war carries on for years on end."

"They have to bring in more forces and make use of the geography," he added. "Guerrillas' safe havens reside in the mountains. In the opening moves, the army should have landed troops to secure the heights, to force the guerrillas into the valleys, where you can take them down using air-delivered and ground-delivered firepower."

So far, however, it's unclear whether Pakistan, which has a shortage of heavy-lift helicopters, has made large-scale landings on the mountaintops, Hussain said.

Two Pakistani assaults against militants earlier this year relied heavily on air attacks and artillery bombardments that caused widespread damage -- even though the militants in those areas were less entrenched than those in South Waziristan are.

A third military assault this year, in the Swat Valley, was more successful, but failed to destroy the Taliban leadership there, which either melted into the civilian population or fled into the mountains.

In addition, U.S. intelligence officials said that Mehsud's fighters are supported by militants from Uzbekistan, Chechnya and elsewhere in Central Asia who're formidable fighters and served as Osama bin Laden's rear guard when the al Qaida leader fled Afghanistan for Pakistan eight years ago.

The government also has lost the element of surprise because officials have been saying for weeks that the operation was coming, and Pakistani jets and artillery have been pounding militant strongholds since June to soften up targets. Reports suggest that some extremists, including al Qaida operatives, have slipped out of Waziristan.

"The army believes this operation is critical and could determine the future of militancy," said Imtiaz Gul, an analyst based in Islamabad, the Pakistani capital, and the author of The al Qaida Connection. "But if people see that trouble is coming, they'll simply move to other areas."

Since August, some 135,000 people have flooded out of South Waziristan to nearby areas of Pakistan to escape the fighting, with another 30,000 arriving in the last three days, according to FIDA, a non-governmental organization that's spearheading the registration of displaced people.

U.S. military support for the operation could be crucial in terms of donating equipment, including helicopters; sealing off the Afghan side of the border; and using drone aircraft to pick off the Pakistani Taliban's high command. One such strike in August assassinated the movement's leader, Baitullah Mehsud, but the group appears to have regrouped under Hakimullah Mehsud.

The TTP was formed in late 2007 and immediately declared war on the Pakistani state, pushing the U.S. ally towards chaos in a campaign of violence marked by suicide attacks and a grab for territory in the country's northwest.

(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent. Jonathan S. Landay in Washington contributed.)

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