U.S. behind Pakistan offensive

October 20, 2009

Snehal Shingavi looks at the political calculations behind the Pakistani military's massive assault on the Taliban in Waziristan province.

UNDER GROWING pressure from the U.S., the Pakistani Army launched a major incursion into Waziristan October 17 with air strikes and the entry of 30,000 soldiers into the region in the hopes of mounting a final offensive against the Pakistani Taliban (Tehrik-e-Taliban, or TeT).

The army's targets also include Hakimullah Mehsud, the brother of Beitullah Mehsud, the former leader of the Pakistani Taliban who was killed by U.S. drones last August. Until recently, the Pakistani establishment had taken some comfort in the thought that Hakimullah had been killed a few weeks ago. This wouldn't be the first nor the most serious mistake Pakistani intelligence has made.

The military offensive was precipitated by recent attacks by the Pakistani Taliban on military headquarters and police stations in major cities, including Peshawar, Lahore and Islamabad. More than 175 people were killed in attacks by the Taliban and other Islamist outfits during the past two weeks.

The Pakistani military and police were highly embarrassed by the attacks. Debates have emerged inside Pakistan about whether or not the state is actually capable of, or even interested in, curbing the threat of terrorism. Few of the voices are from progressive quarters.

Pakistan's military is carrying out an assault against Taliban fighters in the country's northwest
Pakistan's military is carrying out an assault against Taliban fighters in the country's northwest (Al-Jazeera English)

The debate inside the Pakistani military about whether or not to launch the offensive in Waziristan has been ongoing for quite some time. Waziristan is home to the Mehsud tribe, a group of Pashtun warriors from which the TeT draws many of its recruits and most of its leadership.

Aside from being the headquarters of the TeT, Waziristan is also believed to be the place where the leadership of al-Qaeda is holed up, along with Qari Hussain, believed to be the mastermind behind the series of suicide bombing operations inside Pakistan.

While some have argued that Pakistan's military offensive was made necessary by these attacks, the reasons for the move are more complex.

Pakistani military chiefs and politicians have already thoroughly debated whether or not to launch an all-out invasion of Waziristan, and the outcome of past incursions into the region have been negative. Thus, the military's strategy in its previous interventions in Waziristan has been to negotiate settlements and ceasefires.

The Pakistan military's preference to negotiate with the Taliban rather than crush them in part reflects an unwillingness to part with what has been a strategic asset--past support for the Taliban has given Pakistani military and intelligence services a sphere of influence in Afghanistan.

But the reluctance to conduct an all-out war on the Taliban also highlights the fact that the military has no strategy to win the ground war. As winter approaches in the mountainous border region of Pakistan and Afghanistan, it's unlikely that the Pakistani military will win a confrontation with the Mehsud's TeT. There are too many places for TeT fighters to hide--and too many TeT supporters in Waziristan--for a clear military victory for government troops.

Thus, the Pakistani military is unlikely to repeat the bloody success it achieved in the province of Swat, where just a few months ago government forces handily routed the TeT. They could do so because the population was fairly evenly divided between allies and enemies of the Pakistani Taliban. This allowed the Pakistani military to draw on local support for its operations.

In Waziristan, however, the population has a longstanding tradition of resisting direct rule and interference from the Pakistani state. Fiercely independent, the people of Waziristan are likely to put up major resistance to the military incursion. And the indiscriminate fire of American drones and Pakistani jets has only enflamed passions.

MOREOVER, THE Pakistani establishment has been for a long time caught between two opposite camps.

On the one hand, large sections of the civilian bureaucracy have wanted a more aggressive posture against the Pakistani Taliban, not the least because they know that American aid is contingent on delivering results. President Asif Ali Zardari, widower of the assassinated political leader Benazir Bhutto, also has a personal stake in the fight. Beitullah Mehsud claimed credit for organizing Bhutto's assassination.

But the Pakistani civilian bureaucracy has faced challenges from large parts of the military, which opposed any aggressive push against the Pakistani Taliban. Growing numbers inside the Pakistani military elite suspect that the American war in Afghanistan will not end well for the U.S. And as the current Afghanistan election scandal shows, Afghan President Hamid Karzai has been unable to deliver a state capable of replacing the Taliban.

As a result, the pragmatists inside the military and the intelligence are banking on their erstwhile allies, the Afghan Taliban, to come out on top.

The schism between these two wings of the Pakistani ruling class has become deeper in the past several weeks with the debate over whether to accept U.S. aid under the proposed Kerry-Lugar legislation (recently renamed the "Enhanced Partnership with Pakistan" bill).

The military perceives Kerry-Lugar as a U.S. effort to force Pakistan to give up control over its decision-making to the Americans. In this, they are not entirely wrong. Language in the bill demands that the Pakistani government exercise "effective civilian control over the military" and commit itself to "ceasing support" for terrorist groups and "dismantling terrorist bases."

The opposition party led by Nawaz Sharif, the Pakistani Muslim League (Nawaz), has argued that such language, coupled with the enormous embassy that Washington has already begun constructing, basically amount to an attack on Pakistani sovereignty.

In fact, the Kerry-Lugar bill reserves its strongest language for the Pakistani military and the Inter-Services Intelligence, both of which have been accused of giving material support to the Islamists and waging a half-hearted campaign against them. This is, after all, the reason that America is waging a war in "Af-Pak." There is a growing tendency in Washington to see Pakistan as the largest obstacle to what the Pentagon calls "full-spectrum dominance."

Sharif's party has also had little trouble circulating rumors that Kerry-Lugar is the product of the 152-member Congressional Caucus on India and Indian Americans, which it sees as supporters of Pakistan's main rival. So deep was suspicion of the bill that the Pakistani ambassador was forced to obtain an extraordinary "joint explanatory statement" from Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Rep. Howard Berman, and even ask Kerry and Gen. David Petraeus to fly to Pakistan and allay the fears of the opposition.

Still, the $7.5 billion package is proving too lucrative for the Pakistani establishment to brook disagreement for a government bankrupt and surviving on a massive $11.3 billion dollar loan from the International Monetary Fund. Moreover, the passage of the U.S. bill is critical to convincing European and Arab donors to give more aid to Pakistan.

Indeed, Pakistan's economic aspirations are driving the Pakistani elite's optimism about the Waziristan offensive. The Pakistanis hope to have things wrapped up in a nearly impossible two-month campaign.

These hopes are based on dangerously precarious calculations, however. In the lead-up to the current assault on Waziristan, Pakistan played a card from its old deck, attempting to cozy up to certain militant groups in order to go after others. As Syed Saleem Shahzad explained in Asia Times:

In preparation for the assault, the army made ceasefire deals with several influential Taliban warlords who run large networks against coalition troops in Afghanistan. They include Mullah Nazir, the chief of the Taliban in Wana, South Waziristan, who operates the largest Taliban network in the Afghan province of Paktika. Mullah Nazir is neutral in this Pakistani conflict and agreed to allow passage to the army to enter Mehsud territory.

In North Waziristan, two top Taliban commanders, Hafiz Gul Bahadur and Moulvi Sadiq Noor, also agreed to remain neutral. They are members of the Shura of the Mujahideen and a main component of the Taliban's insurgency in the Afghan province of Khost.

Yet the more the Pakistani elite sidle up to the Americans, the less likely these "neutral" Taliban groups are to believe that their interests will be preserved in remaining out of the fight. Thus, Pakistani troops may find that they are the ones caught in a crossfire.

The current military campaign involves sending troops into the mountains that border Waziristan in advance of air strikes. The aim is to force the fighters to retreat to the hills, where they will be ambushed. The problem is that such a pincer action will invariably mean that hundreds of civilians will also be killed, since the hills are the only realistic escape route for them as well.

With the roads blocked and little infrastructure in place to absorb the hundreds of thousands of refugees who have already fled their homes, those unable to flee will face the same fate as the Islamists. People who have already fled to Dera Ismail Khan found that there were no camps, no food and no aid--and this having already learned that their homes were being flattened by air strikes.

At the same time, even if the army is able to rout the TeT and al-Qaeda in South Waziristan, it still has to find a way to integrate Waziristan into the national government.

Long underdeveloped, Waziristan has been all but abandoned by the central government, leaving the locals little choice but to rely on the TeT for some kind of legal apparatus. The vacuum created by the ouster of the TeT will take decades to replace. Moreover, the general strategy of collective punishment and decades of neglect will undoubtedly transform much of the local population into hardened rebels.

THE U.S. bears responsibility for the suffering in Waziristan and other parts of Pakistan. In an attempt to create a little more maneuverability for itself in Afghanistan, the U.S. government has literally put a down payment on permanent Pakistani instability.

Comparisons to expansion of the Vietnam War notwithstanding, the U.S. has forced the hand of the Pakistani military into a campaign that, only a few months ago, it confessed an inability to accomplish. In fact, it has been a long-held piety in Pakistani military circles that offensives in the tribal region are more trouble than they're worth. Rush deliveries of American night-vision goggles are hardly likely to make up the difference.

The other problem is that the Pakistani offensive in Waziristan is more likely to galvanize support for the Islamists in Pakistan than it is to help weaken the Taliban in Afghanistan.

For one thing, there have been deep divisions between the TeT and the Afghan Taliban, and the military offensive in Waziristan is designed in part to go after the threat to the Pakistani state rather than supply networks to the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Secondly, there is a real concern that Pakistani madrassas are sending fighters from the seminaries into the region to support the Taliban. The Pakistani police conducted raids on several madrassas over the past weekend in order to cut the growing connections between the TeT and radical Punjabi groups.

Moreover, the TeT already has cells in some of Pakistan's major cities, as the spectacular recent attacks demonstrated. And it's likely that most of the TeT membership that was holed up in Waziristan has already fled, either toward Afghanistan or into the cities.

So even as the Pakistani military announces success in Waziristan, the TeT will continue to wreak havoc in other ways. There are even reports that that the TeT is joining forces with two other Islamist outfits, Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Muhammad, the former of which was implicated in the November 26 attack on Mumbai.

To make things even more daunting, Waziristan is in some of the most treacherous terrain in Pakistan. There's a high probability that the fighting could drag on for quite some time. And the longer the battles continue, the less likely the fragile truces with the warlords will remain intact.

The Pakistani military has never been able to defeat the militants in this region. And if the operation can't be completed within a few weeks, snowfall may cover the TeT's retreat and limit the army's movements. Furthermore, since Waziristan is underdeveloped, military convoys carrying troops and supplies are easy targets for ambushes on the area's few roads. The Pakistani military has already pulled resources away from Swat, where it is rumored that the TeT have already regrouped.

DETAILS ABOUT the actual operations are fairly hard to come by, with contradictory reports coming from both the military and the Islamists. Pakistani authorities have restricted journalists from traveling into the region, and as a result, most of the reports appearing on television and in print parrot the military's version of the events.

The consequence has been quick popular support for the offensive. The problem is that if the military's optimism turns out to be fanciful, that support is capable of turning against Zardari's Pakistan People Party, too.

The military incursion is also likely to double the already large population of refugees from Waziristan. Between 90,000 and 150,000 people have already fled the region, and some predict that the refugee population could swell by a quarter of a million.

Their plight has been made worse by the fact that the Pakistani military has closed most of the roads that lead out of Waziristan in an attempt to surround the Pakistani Taliban and al-Qaeda, forcing refugees to take longer, more dangerous routes. It's unlikely that these people will be grateful.

In fact, some members of the Pakistani establishment have gone so far as to say that the people of the Mehsud tribe have brought collective punishment on themselves because they refused to support the military offensive, and because they have refused to recruit and train their own local militias against the Islamists.

As Interior Minister Rehman Malik warned:

I want to give a message to the Taliban that what we did with you in Swat, we will do the same to you there [Waziristan], too...The enemy has started a guerrilla war. These attacks are a moment of reflection for us--but you will soon see these Taliban, these hired guns, fleeing. The whole nation should be united against these handful of terrorists, and, God willing, we will defeat them.

Needless to say, the situation in Pakistan is quite unstable. The more President Barack Obama draws Pakistan into his military plans for "Af-Pak," the more likely he is to set off old grievances against the Pakistani state. Zardari is widely believed to be corrupt, and it was only a year ago that the lawyers' democracy movement brought the state to its knees. And the economic crisis has hit Pakistan quite hard. The Karachi Stock Exchange took a serious hit in recent days, and unemployment figures are going up.

As one Islamabad resident, Hasan Zaman, told the BBC: "The popular opinion is that we are being sold to America piece by piece. Our national integrity is at risk. I am scared of the fact that I might see the end of Pakistan in my lifetime."

There are big debates inside of the Pakistani establishment that are finding expression in popular consciousness. If the operation in Waziristan goes badly or sets off more terror attacks in the rest of the country--both of which are likely--there will be massive discontent inside of Pakistan. And then Pakistan will become a much larger problem for the American empire.

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