Sunday, October 18, 2009

An Alternative Theory on the S. Waziristan Assault

So you all probably know about the recent string of attacks by the Taliban in Pakistan, against police stations, army headquarters, and random civilians, by raid or by suicide bomb, in Peshawar or Lahore or Islamabad. The Taliban has grown particularly tough and gutsy, and it's not 100% clear to what end. Certainly they have won the ire of the Pakistanis, who are (finally) launching a long-awaited operation into South Waziristan. The BBC provides an image of the approach below:

The Army is approaching from the North, East, and West, which is probably largely a courtesy to ISAF and NATO: this way, fleeing Taliban will be going south, into the waiting jaws of Pakistani reserves, rather than north and west, where they can regroup with Afghani Taliban.

The Pakistani Army is sending 30,000, backed by artillery, helicopters, and the works. Though I'm not sure whether there will be a serious commando presence. The Taliban is perhaps 10,000 strong, with some 500-5,000 Uzbek al-Qaeda affiliated allies in the area. It's a big force. The Army is pouring in and taking civilised territory pretty quickly, though they're likely to struggle significantly in the mountains.

This fight brings up two big questions: 1) Why did the Taliban provoke Pakistan? and 2) Is Pakistan's heart really in it?

1) Most analysts seem to think that the Taliban were hoping to divide Pakistani opinion with a wave of attacks, to try to dissuade the long-planned South Waziristan invasion. I think this analysis is, frankly, naive.

Frankly, I think that the Taliban has realized at this point that launching attacks, especially against civilians, will unite/enrage the country. Expensive offensives are difficult when the status quo is peaceful, but not when the status quo is hellish, at the hands of a brutal enemy. No, I believe that the Taliban knew full well that their attacks would provoke a serious counter-attack; they knew they would not cow the Pakistanis into complacency by murdering civilians. But why would they want the Pakistanis to attack?

Let us assume for a moment that the South Waziristan assault was inevitable. It probably was. The government promised to do it, the US is pressuring them to do it, and the troops were already massing all around the region. So if Meshud (the new Pakistani Taliban leader) knew they were coming, he'd want them to come on his own terms. So it is quite reasonable to believe that he has kept his troops on high alert and sent some out to perform the raids/suicide bombs to get the Army to attack both when Meshud was strong and before mobilization preparations were complete, giving Meshud as high an advantage as possible. I find this scenario far more likely than one in which the hardened Taliban fooled themselves into hoping they could break the Pakistani people into submission with a few bombs.

But this is the fourth time since 2004 alone that Pakistan has tried to regain control of South Waziristan. The first three have failed, and the Army was trying to make sure it was as prepared as possible for the fourth assault. This accelerated assault has it a bit off-kilter, whether or not the Army will admit it, and it was frankly an excellent strategic choice by Meshud--Pakistan is fickle and its opinion changes quickly. It does not--like the US or UK--have a "sunk costs" psychology, and it is not afraid to retreat and admit defeat from even its own soveriegn territory.

2) A touger question. Much tougher. Canadian intelligence certainly suggests that a large portion of Pakistani Intelligence is in favor of a strong Taliban presence in Afghanistan, and that some may have been behind coordinating the Taliban raids in Pakistan. And it's almost certainly true. One of Pakistan's toughest security risks is its own intelligence security services, and unless it can clean house and put them in line, it will never off finish the Taliban in its own country. And as long as these elements remain, much of the Pakistani efforts will continue to support the Taliban in Afghanistan. The commitment of the government as a whole is worth serious question.

If the US cannot win enough factions in the Pakistani government such that it will make genuine efforts to oust the Taliban from regions useful to the US (Khyber, Kurram, Bajur, Chitral, and especially Balochistan), then ISAF will unlikely be able to "break the back" of the Afghani Taliban--they will receive too much support from across the border.

So, we shall see. Perhaps the Taliban will be foolish enough to burn a great deal of resources in support of Waziristan, and exhaust itself. Perhaps NATO will be smart enough to take advantage of Pakistani distraction to launch a heavy assault.

But Obama has made it clear that there will not be a major Afghanistan decision until the election results are more sure (they're still being recounted). Without more troops, there will not be a major offensive. This may be a missed opportunity. But it may become academic.

If the US cannot get the Pakistani government on its side nor the Afghan government to play by the rules and attempt to win the hearts/minds of its people, then the Afghanistan war is likely all but lost.
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