Sunday, June 21, 2009

Pakistan Prepares to Assault Waziristan

After 8 years of absurd domestic politics that can be most briefly described as "bullshit," the past few months in Pakistan have been a dramatic and critical turnaround in the very frustrating war on the Taliban. While Swat valley is not yet a thriving pillar of liberty, justice, and security, the Taliban spine in the area has been broken (though, let me say, Taliban spines have had a very odd history of remote post-mortem reassembly). But the Pakistani army is, cleverly, recruiting former People's Militiamen and those whose lives were most thoroughly destroyed by the Taliban to become a loyal local police force that will not only keep these people fed (hearts & minds!) but, more importantly, provide a presence that will be difficult for the Taliban to overcome.

Next: Waziristan. Waziristan is a much bigger and more daunting challenge for the Pakistani Army. Waziristan serves as the primary base of operations for the Afghani Taliban--they fled after the 2001 US invasion and set up shop in this rough, tribal area; they have acted with relative impunity since. The area is full of tribalists who are quite used to their autonomy, and do not like state intervention--unlike the people of Swat, they will not be welcoming the Pakistani Army with open arms. There are many more Taliban per capita, they are more entrenched, and they know the terrain a whole lot better than the Army. And, unlike Swat, they will not give up easily--where would they go?

But here, close to the Afghani border, Pakistan has the advantage of extensive NATO intelligence, support, and firepower. NATO will almost certainly press from the north right to the border, and happily shoot across. The Taliban will need to fear drones and incoming missiles if they expose their positions in order to attack the invading Pakistani Army. The Taliban can dissolve and try to fight an insurgency, but like Swat, psychology may limit their ability to so quickly give up control of the area for a more tactically advantageous (but very, very long-term) strategy. If they hold firm, they will inflict casualties, but if the Pakistani Army can withstand those casualties, the likely-firm stance of the Taliban will shatter.

Now, it is not entirely clear this will work--the last time the Pakistani Army ventured into Waziristan, they were crushed, and left with tail between legs. But this will be different, for a number of reasons:

1) Public opinion gives the Pakistani Army the political capital it needs to both bring many troops and inflict some local civilian casualties.
2) The Pakistani Army has new leadership that is making much better use of its array of options--standard troops, paramilitary guards, commandos, airpower, etc.
3) The Pakistani Army has the political ability to cooperate with the US in this operation. That will be a huge advantage.
4) Without Swat, the Taliban is a bit off-balance. As they run out of alternative safe-havens, they have fewer places to re-group, train, supply, etc, for long-term campaigns.

The Pakistani Army is trying to soften up the positions of Talibani commander and al-Qaeda ally Meshud with airpower. Current militant casualties are estimated at about 50, which isn't many, but is enough to shake the Taliban a bit. If the Pakistani Army can continue to inflict such casualties using long-range attacks, the psychological implications (especially for a force that has enjoyed peace in its home base) will be significant.

As the Army hits the heavy enclaves of the Taliban, citizens militias are actually forming around the northwest and working with paramilitary/police to trap, separate, and kill extremists that had over-extended in attempts to push their influence further into Pakistan. Such militias may be self-propagating--stories of success may encourage otherwise fence-sitting men to take arms to help, giving them an even greater advantage. If nothing else, they will provide serious disruption to the physical network of Taliban between their strongholds, giving the Army a much-needed logistical advantage.
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