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Waziristan Quagmire

Captain Alok Bansal was Member, Navy at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • March 28, 2006

    The actions of the Pakistani government in North Waziristan during the last one month are indicative of adhocism and adventurism. It was only on February 23 that the Governor of NWFP, Khalil-ur-Rehman, announced that the government had suspended operations in North Waziristan Agency because it believed that tribesmen were capable of restoring peace and normalcy through their own customs and traditions. However just six days later, 41 militants including their Chechen commander were reportedly killed in a raid carried out using helicopter gunships on their hideout in North Waziristan. This volte-face by the government just before the all-important visit of President Bush to Pakistan was apparently triggered by articles in the US media, which accused Pakistan of not doing enough in the 'war on terror'. It was also alleged that certain sections of the Pakistani establishment were still in league with the remnants of the Taliban. This media blitz had put enormous pressure on the Pakistani government to 'do something' and resulted in this operation by the Pakistan Army's Special Services Group in which they claimed to have killed 40 foreign (mainly Chechen) militants.

    Local residents led by a radical cleric Maulana Abdul Khaliq, however, denied the presence of any foreigners and claimed that all those killed were local tribesmen, their women and children. They contended that innocent people were massacred by the Pakistani Army to please President Bush, especially as this operation came within a week of the government's widely publicised suspension of operations in North Waziristan Agency. The furious local militants retaliated by storming the bazaar of Miranshah, the headquarters of North Waziristan Agency and capturing the telephone exchange and other government offices. They also warned tribal elders and the Ulema not to attend Jirgas summoned by the political agent of North Waziristan. They then surrounded the fortified military posts and gave a deadline to the government to withdraw troops and helicopters from the town. The authorities in return warned the militants to leave the bazaar and give up their positions or be ready to face the consequences. Clashes erupted immediately after President Bush landed in Pakistan. Both sides wanted to signal their resolve to President Bush and in the fiercest fight in Waziristan over 100 people were killed in battles in which helicopter gunships and medium artillery were used liberally. The telephone exchange and most of the bazaar in Miranshah were razed to the ground. However, despite using inordinately heavy firepower, the Pakistani Army could not recapture the town till President Bush had departed Pakistan. To most Pakistanis this incident demonstrated another attempt by the government to win US accolade by sacrificing Pakistani blood.

    Waziristan covers an area of 11,585 square kilometres (4,473 square miles) and is divided into North and South Waziristan agencies. The total population today is estimated to be less than a million. The region is one of the most inaccessible, has an extremely rugged terrain and has remained outside the direct control of the Pakistani government. Hitherto, it has only been controlled nominally by the central government of Pakistan. The Waziri tribes that inhabit the region are fiercely independent, but had not bothered the Pakistani government till the fall of the Taliban government in neighbouring Afghanistan, when the region turned out to be a good sanctuary for the fleeing Al Qaeda and Taliban elements. Pakistani troops entered the region for the first time in late 2002 after long negotiations with the tribes, which reluctantly agreed to allow the military's presence on the assurance that it would bring in funds and development work. However, once the military action started, a number of Waziri tribals took it as an attempt to subjugate them.

    During the last three years in which Waziristan has been a hot-bed of terrorist activities, the government has applied various strategies to rein in the militants suspected to be hiding there but has consistently failed. Despite using disproportionately heavy force, the Army has not been able to establish the writ of the state. It has conducted military operations in which many lives have been lost. It offered amnesties to militants and then reneged on its promise and has seen the tribal leaders supporting the government being killed. There have been a number of co-ordinated operations by Pakistani and US troops in the region. Besides, the US has resorted to targeted killings of militants using UAVs, one of which led to the killing of the militant leader Nek Mohammad, who had reached an agreement with the government. The Army operations have resulted in a large number of civilian casualties, further increasing the alienation of the population. The Army also tried to buy off the loyalties of the militants by paying them huge sums of money, but it has failed to herald peace in the region. According to one estimate, in 2005 alone 300 civilians were killed and about 800 injured while 250 army personnel lost their lives and more than 600 were injured.

    Today the Pakistani Armed Forces are overstretched and there is a limit to the number of fronts on which the Pakistani Army can fight - there are problems in Balochistan and Northern Areas besides Waziristan. The Army is still involved in rehabilitation work in the earthquake-affected zone and will continue to remain involved for quite some time to come. It has to guard the borders to the West and the East and be prepared for occasional sectarian strife and Al Qaeda strikes. On top of all this, the recent demonstrations against the Danish Cartoons have clearly indicated that the general public is fed up with the government and is looking for chances to give vent to its frustrations. Repeated US attacks on Pakistani soil have not only compromised Pakistani sovereignty but have also incensed the public. Under the circumstances it would probably be a wise move for the Pakistan military to extricate itself from the quagmire of Waziristan and bide its time.

    Despite committing over 70,000 to 80,000 troops supported by helicopter gunships, artillery and air force, the writ of the state in the region has remained at best tenuous. The frequent incidents of violence make a mockery of the government statements that all is under control. The offer of ceasefire was meant to merely legitimise the de facto position. Top ranking Taliban and Al Qaeda leaders, in any case, have been moving in and out of the region with impunity. However, reports in the US media that a section of the Pakistani establishment is in league with Al Qaeda and Taliban, just prior to President Bush's visit, forced the Pakistani establishment to disturb the hornets' nest. However, having done that, it does not know how to restore order and is looking forward to a face saving formula to extricate itself from this quagmire. Recent attacks on Afghanistan and its leadership is an attempt by the Pakistani leadership to mask its failures in Waziristan from the international media and to divert domestic attention from the strong-arm tactics being used there.