Cross-post from STRATFOR
Pakistan began its highly anticipated, three-pronged ground offensive in South Waziristan Oct. 17. However, the military has only begun to enter Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan’s stronghold, and despite the fact that the military has been preparing for this offensive since June, considerable challenges remain. The military will not address the entire spectrum of militancy in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas in one fell swoop but will instead address it one step at a time. Its first objective is to establish a foothold in the area from which it can project power in future operations.
The Pakistani army began Oct. 17 its much anticipated ground offensive, dubbed Operation Rah-e-Nijat (Path to Salvation), deploying 28,000-30,000 soldiers who are advancing into the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan’s (TTP) strongholds along three axes toward Makeen, Jandola and Tiraza. The deployment and direction of the offensives focus on an area of approximately 400 square miles (South Waziristan is roughly 2,550 square miles total) that is the stronghold of the TTP, led by Hakeemullah Mehsud. Some 10,000-15,000 militants are believed to be residing in the region, along with another 1,500 foreign fighters (mostly from Uzbekistan).
The mission is specific and is hardly an assault on the entire militant network in South Waziristan; the military is focusing on this area to strike a blow against the TTP on its own turf and to establish a base to use in its effort to gain control over the surrounding areas. Additionally, the military is negotiating deals with two influential militant commanders: Maulvi Nazir and Hafiz Gul Bahadur, who control North Waziristan and western South Waziristan, respectively. Without even their limited support, military operations in this region would be dramatically more complicated because Nazir and Gul Bahadur control large amounts of territory.
The TTP has a tight zone of influence in South Waziristan, but it has also alienated some of the local population through its repressive tactics. Nearly 100,000 locals left the area prior to the operation, reducing the militants’ ability to hide among civilians. The Uzbek fighters are perceived less as ideologically motivated warriors and more as common criminals capitalizing on their alliance with the TTP. The military is seeking to capitalize on this negative sentiment and move into the area controlled by Mehsud in order to impose law and order — which the population desperately wants. Compared to the Swat Valley offensive in May, where the military had much stronger local support to flush out militants, the offensive in South Waziristan will be difficult because the locals are much more wary of the military’s actions and are not confident that the military will end up winning the conflict outright. This high level of uncertainty going into the offensive thus detracts from the military’s ability to convince the local warlords and tribal leaders to give information on TTP hideouts.
Historically, Islamabad’s refusal to dedicate conventional forces in the FATA since a failed mission in 2005 has created problems; however, Islamabad knows why it failed in the past and has not spent the last five months preparing to fail again. Since June, the Pakistani military has been using airstrikes to soften up targets and engaging in negotiations with tribal leaders (such as Nazir and Gul Bahadur) to win their support. Initial pushes into TTP territory have been successful, but the contact has been with peripheral TTP outposts that would be expected to fall easily, and the action so far should not be considered indicative of resistance throughout the whole campaign. Indeed, due to the high amount of publicity surrounding this operation, the militants have also had plenty of time to prepare. As troops advance, the TTP will resort to using more guerilla-style tactics in order to evade artillery and airstrikes. If the militants stand and fight, the military will overwhelm them with conventional tactics. Therefore, it is likely that militants will retreat and disperse from concerted military efforts, so the follow-on measures to secure the population and make the area inhospitable for militants will be as crucial as the initial offensive.
A major problem for the military is that it does not have good intelligence on the exact locations of the TTP’s and Uzbek leadership in South Waziristan; rumors indicate that TTP leaders Mehsud and Wali ur Rehman have escaped northwest into North Waziristan — an area controlled by Gul Bahadur (also where many foreign fighters like Abu Yahya al-Libi are reportedly located). Pakistan’s air force is pursuing these fleeing militants and launching airstrikes in North Waziristan as well as bombing anti-aircraft artillery emplacements controlled by the TTP and its allies.
In order to carry out its mission in this kind of environment, the military must work with local warlords and increase their level of cooperation. The two actors involved in this area who can be portrayed as somewhat neutral are Nazir and Gul Bahadur. These militant leaders are not as ideologically motivated as Mehsud and instead are motivated by lucrative criminal activities. This means that they are easier for the government to negotiate with, but their cooperation is fickle. For example, Nazir and Gul Bahadur allegedly have agreed not to confront the military if it enters their territory, but they will continue to allow militants (like Mehsud and Rehman) to flee — similar to what happened during the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. For Pakistan, neutrality is the first step — Nazir and Gul Bahadur have far too many alliances and interests in the region to be expected to completely switch sides so quickly. They are waiting to see how Operation Rah-e-Nijat pans out before they commit further.
The other actor in all of this is the United States. U.S. Central Command chief Gen. David Petraeus and Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. general in Afghanistan, are in Pakistan during the initial phases of the operation, underlining U.S. support for the operation. South and North Waziristan have been the site of numerous suspected strikes by U.S. unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) recently against both al Qaeda and TTP high-value targets. Petraeus and McChrystal have a much wider militant target set than the Pakistanis and would like to see Pakistan extend the offensive to critical al Qaeda strongholds along Waziristan’s border with Afghanistan. To heighten the success of this operation, the United States would like a hand in pursuing fleeing militants with UAV strikes. However, as recent history has illustrated, this is a politically explosive commitment for Islamabad to make, particularly if it runs even a remote chance of having Pakistani military forces caught in the crossfire. It is not yet clear how restrained the United States will be when it has the potential to hit key leadership targets, or how coordinated those efforts may be with Pakistani operations.
STRATFOR will continue to monitor the Pakistani offensive in South Waziristan and continue posting updates of the situation as the military attempts to overthrow a militant stronghold and establish a foothold in the area.
© Copyright 2009 STRATFOR