Gearing Up for a Long-Awaited Offensive in North Waziristan
Recent news reporting in Pakistan suggests that the long-awaited Pakistani military operation in North Waziristan may finally be launched soon. Although there have been false rumors of impending military action in the troubled Pakistani tribal agency in the past, recent reports seem to suggest a significantly increased likelihood that this operation will actually occur. Pakistani military operations in North Waziristan should be welcomed and supported, but expectations of the outcome of any such operations will need to be tempered, given their likely scope and scale.
Reports of an Offensive
The Pakistani daily The News carried a report on Monday quoting statements from “highly-placed” sources that the Pakistani military had resolved to undertake a military offensive against Islamist militants in North Waziristan. According to the report, an “understanding for carrying out the operation” was reached during the recent visits to Pakistan of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Michael Mullen. The News claims that Pakistani leaders gave in to a long-standing American demand to launch an offensive into North Waziristan in exchange for receiving a “clean chit” from Secretary Clinton on whether or not senior Pakistani officials may have been complicit in sheltering Osama bin Laden inside Pakistan, though this claim cannot be verified.
Military officials claim no decisions have been made yet regarding potential future operations, but Pakistan’s top military commanders are slated to attend a “special meeting” this week to consider Pakistani military options in North Waziristan, including, reportedly, the possibility of a “full scale operation against the Haqqani Network,” Afghanistan’s most dangerous insurgent group.
North Waziristan serves as a base for several of the most virulent terrorist organizations in the region including: al Qaeda Central, the Haqqani Network, the Pakistan-focused Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and other sectarian terror outfits, Uzbek groups such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and the Islamic Jihad Union, and Lashkar-e-Taiba, the group responsible for the 2008 Mumbai attacks, among many others.
Reports indicate that Pakistani authorities put local NGOs and humanitarian aid organizations in the area on high alert two weeks ago, telling them to begin preparing for as many as 55,000 internally displaced families (approximately 365,000 people) from the region as a result of possible operations. A similar tip-off to aid agencies in 2009 preceded a military operation launched to clear militants from their sanctuaries in the South Waziristan tribal agency, bordering North Waziristan.
Anonymous senior Pakistani officials quoted in the recent reporting have said that the Pakistani military will be acting upon previously drawn-up plans for tackling militants in North Waziristan. This operation will reportedly involve initial airstrikes to be conducted by the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) in a bid to soften up enemy forces prior to operations by ground forces. Pakistan has over 35,000 troops from more than six brigades under the 7th Infantry Division already stationed in North Waziristan (the most of any tribal agency in the northwest) that will likely take part in any hostilities, though the recent reporting also suggests the possibility that more troops out of the 140,000 currently operating in northwest Pakistan may be reassigned to the region in order to take part in the operation.
Different from Previous Operations
The news that the Pakistani military may launch an offensive into North Waziristan is significant. The U.S. has long called for action against militant groups operating out of the agency. North Waziristan contains the highest concentration and most diverse grouping of Islamist militants anywhere in the world. The agency has been the cradle of, and launching pad for, dozens of plots and deadly attacks against Pakistan, Afghanistan, Europe and the United States. Pakistani military action in North Waziristan, long overdue, will be crucial in disrupting and destroying those groups’ capacity to operate.
Expectations of the outcomes of possible Pakistani operations need to be tempered, however. Any operations conducted in North Waziristan will likely not be comprehensive, and will probably target only certain militant groups and limited areas in the agency. The Haqqani Network is likely not going to be included on the target roster. The effect of these efforts on insurgent operations across the border in Afghanistan is likely to be marginal.
The recent reporting on the possible operation clearly states that any military offensive will primarily target the TTP led by Hakimullah Mehsud, and will be focused around the Mir Ali area. The TTP is Pakistan’s deadliest internally-focused insurgent group and is responsible for the majority of the violence against the Pakistani state. Mir Ali is the second-most populous town in North Waziristan and has, over the years, become known as an anything-goes laissez-faire capital for terrorist and insurgent fugitives. It is home to a mélange of militant groups including the TTP, al Qaeda and other foreign fighters such as Chechens, Uzbeks and Turks, and numerous Punjab-based terrorist organizations affiliated with the TTP, most prominently Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. Fighters affiliated with North Waziristan’s main Taliban commander, Hafiz Gul Bahadur, and the Haqqani network also have a presence in the city.
The operation is not likely to target the Haqqani network or Gul Bahadur’s Taliban faction based in and west of Miram Shah. The U.S. for long accused Pakistan of supporting the Haqqani Network as a proxy for Pakistani interests in Afghanistan. Gul Bahadur’s group has an on-again off-again peace deal with the Pakistani military since 2006, is a key enabler and ally of the Haqqani Network, and allowed the Pakistan Army free passage through North Waziristan when it staged operations in South Waziristan in 2009. There have been no indications so far that Pakistan plans on changing the status quo vis-à-vis either of these groups.
Although this operation will probably differ in scope and scale from those conducted against the Taliban in Swat and South Waziristan in 2009, there will likely be several similarities. The military is likely to make sure it secures an understanding with the Haqqanis and Gul Bahadur before launching operations against the TTP. Some sort of agreement will be imperative given that most of the units likely to be used in the operation are already deployed across North Waziristan; for those units to be able to move and conduct operations in the targeted area, they will need freedom of movement through areas currently controlled by Gul Bahadur.
Just as in previous operations, news of the offensive is being made public prior to its launch. This will encourage a large movement of internally displaced people (IDPs) out of the conflict zone. Although the emptying of populated areas will help separate combatants from civilians and reduce the risk of civilian casualties, it will also afford the targeted militant groups the opportunity to exfiltrate the area prior to hostilities, military cordons notwithstanding. Those groups may even choose to take shelter in ‘safe’ zones within North Waziristan under the control of Gul Bahadur, just as they did during the operation in South Waziristan. This pre-operation publicity risks diminishing the effectiveness of operations against the TTP and its affiliates.
Limited, but Still Significant
Any potential Pakistani military operation in North Waziristan will be nuanced, fraught with complications, and likely unsatisfying to those who expect such operations to have a significant impact on the war in Afghanistan, especially given the fact that the Haqqani Network has been preparing an alternative safe haven for itself in Kurram agency to the north, in the event of a Pakistani operation in North Waziristan.
Even so, a Pakistani offensive should receive American encouragement and support. An operation would be a major, if belated, step by the Pakistani military. It should come as no surprise that Pakistan will specifically target the groups that pose the biggest threat to Pakistan rather than those that target U.S. troops in Afghanistan. But those groups Pakistan will target are also significant threats to the U.S. The TTP has launched attacks inside Afghanistan and on the U.S. homeland, and continues to express its desire to attempt such attacks in the future. The TTP and its allies, including al Qaeda, have built up a significant physical infrastructure in and around Mir Ali that stands to be destroyed by any military operation. The massive relocation and resettlement of militant networks that would follow a military offensive would likely have a disruptive effect on their operations, at least for a while.
Operations in North Waziristan, even limited-scope, targeted operations, stand the chance of disordering terrorist groups that plot against the U.S. and kill thousands of Pakistanis every year, and encouraging stability in wobbly Pakistan. Such undertakings are outcomes to be lauded, even if they do not present the full suite of outcomes hoped for. In Pakistan, one takes the victories where one can find them.
Frederick Kagan, Reza Jan & Charlie Szrom, “The War in Waziristan: Operation Rah-e-Nijat – Phase 1 Analysis,” CriticalThreats.org, November 18, 2009. Available at http://www.criticalthreats.org/pakistan/war-waziristan-operation-rah-e-nijat-phase-1-analysis