By Shafqat Mahmood
The mother of all battles it may not be, but success of the Waziristan operation is critical to the fight against militancy in Pakistan. It is the last frontier, an un-policed border land, a black hole in sovereign territory that has become a centre of terror. Without taking control of it, victory in Pakistan`s terror war is impossible.
The fighting is tough as was to be expected but in the end, superior force will prevail. Pakistani armed forces will eventually control South Waziristan physically. This will not be a small achievement because it is the hardest place to fight. Through the ages, every invader of the subcontinent from the north felt its heat and the super power of the 19th century, the British, also were terribly bogged down. If successful, the Pakistan Army will achieve what others were unable too.
While it is true that in this kind of war, occupation of physical space is only a small part of the equation. It is also possible that most of the militants may filter out to Afghanistan or other parts of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). Yet, South Waziristan is one place where taking control of territory is important. Its space is being used as a sanctuary by Al Qaeda and other foreign militants, particularly Uzbeks. It has training schools for planning and execution of terror attacks. It is used for fabrication of terror material and for the production of suicide bombers. It is also a refuge for radical groups from Punjab and criminals of all kinds. Losing this area will be a setback to militancy.
Militants will regroup and strike in other places. No one has any illusions that this is a short war. But, bit by bit, the freedom for terrorists to operate has to be reduced. It was done in Swat and other parts of Malakand and though incidents continue to happen, the terrorists are on the run there and their ability to strike is reduced. Hopefully, this will be the result too after the success of the Waziristan operation. The terrorist will have to find new places to regroup and it will not be easy. The only problem is that the American angle has become murky at least in the media.
On the day that American generals, Patreaus and McChrystal arrived in Islamabad, there were stories in all the papers that American forces have removed their check posts on Afghan side of the border. The implications of this are quite alarming. If true, not only would this allow the South Waziristan militants to flee to Afghanistan, it would also potentially make it easier for the Afghan Taliban to join the fight against Pakistan Army. This story died as quickly as it surfaced but it raised intriguing possibilities. What were the Americans up to? The general assumption is that the South Waziristan operation has been coordinated with NATO/American forces in Afghanistan to the extent that they would play their role on the Afghan side to interdict any cross-border movement of militants from this side. Is this not the case?
This and some other ambiguities could get clarified, as the operation in South Waziristan proceeds. It is obvious that a great deal of preparatory work has been done to neutralise militant leaders Maulvi Nazir and Gul Bahadur in North Waziristan. These two are closely aligned to the Haqqani faction of the Afghan Taliban; who are a dominant force in the adjoining Afghan province. This would suggest that at least this faction of the Afghan Taliban has no interest in fighting the Pakistan Army and it may have advised its local acolytes not to do so. If this is indeed the case, it is unlikely that Afghan Taliban in the region, which is the Haqqani group, would join the South Waziristan militants in the fight. If it does pan out in this way, a wedge that is already visible between the Mehsud/South Waziristan militants and at least a faction of the Afghan Taliban will be further widened. It also means that their partners including Al Qaeda elements, fighters from foreign countries, Punjab-based militants, insurgents in Swat and other parts of the NWFP, will all have a reason to be alienated from at least the Haqqani faction of the Afghan Taliban. The Haqqani group is a significant presence among the Afghan Taliban. Does this mean that stories implying Mullah Omar and the Afghan Taliban are not opposed to Pakistan and have no interest in supporting the Pakistani militancy, are true? And if so, is this the reason that the Americans are cheesed off?
Alternately, if at some stage Gul Bahadur and Nazir do change their stance or, the Afghan Taliban join the fight against the Pakistan Army, will this create an unbridgeable gulf between the two and lead to a greater impetus in hunting down Taliban leadership in Pakistan? The Americans seem to be willing this to happen. The repeated drone attacks in North Waziristan in the past greatly angered the Gul Bahadur/Nazir faction. This did create a wedge between them and the Pakistani Army and led to an unexpected attack in the North some weeks ago that inflicted heavy casualties. Pakistan army leadership displayed a great deal of patience and no retaliatory attacks were launched. This has paid off in the truce that is visible now.
The future of Pak American cooperation on the military side depends on the decision made by President Obama regarding Afghanistan. If there is a huge surge and an all-out assault is launched on the Afghan Taliban, there is bound to be tension between the Pakistani military and American/NATO forces in Afghanistan.
This will be for two reasons. One, the Americans will continue to accuse Pakistani military of providing sanctuary to Afghan Taliban leadership in Quetta. Since the war in Afghanistan is not easy and a surge will not bring victory, the scapegoat will be Pakistan providing sanctuary to the Taliban.
Secondly, and hopefully it would not come to that, there would be pressure in the US to attack so called Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan, from the air and even on ground. This will have truly horrendous consequences and lead to so much anger in Pakistan, that it will make any Pak-American cooperation in the war on terror very difficult, if not impossible.
If on the other hand, Obama decides to indentify Al Qaeda as the real enemy and open negotiations with the Afghan Taliban, it will change the scenario completely. It is an outcome that Pakistani strategist have been advocating and will allow both countries to focus their effort in removing Al Qaeda and its partners from this region.
It will also allow for a more focused broad based fight against militancy in Pakistan, where American assistance both military and non-military would be very effective. The Pakistani federal cabinet has, as predicted, accepted the fig leaf offered by the explanatory statement to the Kerry-Lugar Bill. The aid can start flowing. But, its future depends on how the situation unfolds on the military front both in Afghanistan and Pakistan.