August 18, 2009
Pakistani Military Options in Waziristan
The Pakistani government has been conducting military operations in South and North Waziristan since the beginning of June. Their goal has been to eliminate the country’s most wanted terrorist, Beitullah Mehsud, and his network. After an early morning CIA drone strike in Zangara, South Waziristan on August 5, news surfaced that Beitullah Mehsud had died. Despite some militant claims to the contrary, it appears almost certain that this news is true. Now that the Pakistani military has achieved its expressed goal in Waziristan, what are Pakistan’s strategic options moving forward, especially in Waziristan? The area is still home to many terrorists and militants, along with their networks of fighters. Some of the groups focus their efforts primarily on American forces in Afghanistan, while others, including the remnants of Beitullah’s group, are more intent on carrying out attacks within Pakistan. Meanwhile the military has other concerns, including ongoing operations in Swat, Bajaur, Dir, and Mohmand, which may require further resources. Beitullah’s death was an important accomplishment for Pakistan. Now the question is: Will Islamabad capitalize on that accomplishment and, if so, how?
Beitullah Mehsud has focused on attacking and destabilizing the Pakistani government from the time he formed the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) – an umbrella group of roughly thirteen Pakistani Taliban factions – in December 2007. He justified targeting his fellow Muslims and countrymen by accusing the Pakistani government of being an apostate regime under the control of the United States. The Chief of Staff of the Pakistani Army, General Ashfaq Kayani, stated earlier this year that “[Beitullah Mehsud] has a hand in virtually every terrorist attack in Pakistan.” The government also holds him responsible for the deaths of over 1,200 civilians in the past two years, including former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. Some reports suggest that since 2006, Beitullah and his allies have killed almost 3,000 Pakistani security personnel. Thus, Beitullah clearly posed a far greater threat to the security of Pakistan than to U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
The Pakistani military had conveyed the impression that it would launch a full-scale ground operation targeting Beitullah Mehsud and his network of 10,000 – 20,000 heavily armed fighters, including approximately 3,000 foreign fighters. Such an operation never materialized, however, probably as the result of several factors. Counter-terror operations continued on a lesser scale in the Northwest Frontier Province, while hundreds of thousands of internally displaced persons (IDPs) started to return home there. The government likely had no desire to open a second front at the same time. The Pakistani military also appears to have been uncertain about whether or not it could count on lesser Taliban leaders in Waziristan, including Maulvi Nazir and Hafiz Gul Bahadur, to remain neutral in a full-scale ground-assault on Beitullah Mehsud and the TTP. The military, including the paramilitary Frontier Corps, instead pursued a strategy of isolating key militants inside South and North Waziristan and establishing blockades on major roads, including the Miranshah-Razmak road – the primary northern route into Beitullah Mehsud’s territory. The Pakistani military, with occasional support from CIA drones, launched artillery and air strikes on suspected Taliban targets to complement the blockade.
This strategy had two primary effects. First, the military limited the transfer of arms into and out of militant strongholds. The blockade thus depleted the militants’ arsenals and limited their ability to aim suicide bombers at Pakistani targets. Secondly, the blockade strategy limited Beitullah Mehsud’s mobility and deprived him of vital resources. The overall strategy put Beitullah in a desperate situation, making him easier for the Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI), Pakistan’s intelligence bureau, to track. Some reports suggest that on the night Beitullah was killed, his father-in-law had been shuttling back and forth between Beitullah’s location and peace negotiations with the Pakistani government. This development, if true, may have signaled desperation on Beitullah’s part, and it likely facilitated his tracking by intelligence agencies. The ISI was apparently able to provide the CIA with enough information to eliminate the primary target of the Waziristan operation with reliable intelligence resulting partially from the blockade strategy. The Pakistani military now has to decide how to use its forces currently deployed to North and South Waziristan.
The first option for the military is to maintain the status quo. The military will likely pursue this option at least until the Taliban names a successor to Beitullah Mehsud and Islamabad has an opportunity to evaluate the emerging situation. The Pakistani military could direct the blockade and targeted bombings at the group or person that it believes poses the greatest threat to the state after Beitullah Mehsud’s death, regardless of whether or not the TTP remains united under the leadership of one commander, or if it splinters into more autonomous factions. In this case, the military would likely continue to make peace deals with Taliban leaders who do not directly threaten the Pakistani state, and thus free up resources to target individuals and groups that it perceives as the most imminent threat to its stability. The main targets would probably continue to be Beitullah’s immediate network of fighters and its leadership since they have a history of targeting the Pakistani state. At the very least, this approach would deplete Taliban arsenals throughout Waziristan and limit the number of suicide bombers originating in Waziristan. At best, the strategy could also yield the killings of some high-value terrorists and create even further fractionalization within the Taliban.
Early indications suggest that the Pakistani military will pursue this option, at least in the near-term. The military does not appear to have yet redeployed any of its ground forces, but it has launched helicopter air assaults on hideouts and training camps belonging to the fighters of Hakimullah Mehsud, a deputy to Beitullah Mehsud and a contender for the top TTP position. The motivation behind the attacks, which occurred in the Orakzai district of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas on August 13, was likely two-fold. First, the military likely hoped to diminish the overall force levels of the TTP. Second, Hakimullah Mehsud and a commander named Wali-ur-Rehman appear to be the top contenders to succeed Beitullah Mehsud as the head of the TTP. Hakimullah Mehsud’s forces outnumber Wali-ur-Rehman’s forces, so by killing off some of Hakimullah’s fighters, the Pakistani military may have been hoping to even the playing field and thereby create the conditions for an even longer, bloodier battle in the event of an all-out power struggle between Hakimullah Mehsud and Wali-ur-Rehman.
Additionally, the Pakistani government has arrested two top aides to Beitullah Mehsud within the last week. Qari Saifullah, who was responsible for recruiting suicide bombers for the TTP and ran a terror group in Southern Punjab, was injured in a CIA drone strike, which led to his apprehension. Maulvi Omar, who served as the TTP’s main spokesman and an aide to Beitullah Mehsud, was arrested by Pakistani authorities in Mohmand Agency on his way to a meeting in Orakzai on August 17. These developments reflect the Pakistani government’s intention to continue disrupting the TTP leadership structure, at least in the near-term.
A second option the military may pursue is to finish off Mehsud’s network of fighters by executing a traditional clearing operation. This plan would require the military to maintain its checkpoints throughout Waziristan and increase them in Beitullah Mehsud’s strongholds in central Waziristan. The military would then need to clear key Beitullah Mehsud strongholds, such as Makeen, Ladha, and Sara Rogha, of militants, and subsequently patrol the cleared strongholds with a strong police and lashkar (i.e. militia) presence. One potential advantage to this strategy is that the military would target only Beitullah Mehsud’s strongholds, which would mean that it might be able to keep the forces of other local Taliban leaders, such as Nazir and Gul Bahadur, neutral in the fight. Conducting the operations when Beitullah’s fighters have no clearly defined leader to command counter attacks could also prove advantageous for the military’s efforts.
This strategy runs several risks however. First, there is no guarantee that the Pakistani military could keep Nazir and Gul Bahadur neutral since any blockade targeting Beitullah’s strongholds would likely affect, even if to a lesser extent, their areas of influence as well (Wana and Miranshah, respectively). Gul Bahadur may also view such an operation as an opportunity to defend Mehsud Taliban fighters in an effort to earn their allegiance and fill the leadership vacuum created by Beitullah’s death. Secondly, such operations might spark resentment amongst locals, and thus attract previously non-aligned members of the Mehsud tribe (or at least certain clans within the Mehsud tribe, such as Beitullah’s Shabikhel clan) to fight on the side of the Taliban, especially since many will already be holding the Pakistani government accountable for Beitullah’s death. Similarly, members of the Mehsud tribe could potentially continue resisting the military’s presence on their territory during any “hold” portion of the operation. Third, this strategy could generate a severe IDP situation for the Pakistani government, similar, although on a smaller scale, to the situation in Swat after the military’s clearing operations there led to more than two million IDPs. The U.N. estimates that 45,000 IDPs have already left South Waziristan, and it anticipates that a full-scale military operation there could lead to the displacement of up to 150,000 people. Nonetheless, a recent statement by the Pakistani Interior Minister, Rehman Malik, suggests that the state will pursue one of these first two military strategies: “[Operations] will continue until Beitullah Mehsud's group is eliminated forever.”
A third option available to the Pakistani military is to shift its focus to other targets in Waziristan. The Pakistani military conducted major operations in Waziristan from March 2004 through September 2006 targeting foreign fighters and their Taliban hosts. Eighty-thousand Pakistani troops were deployed, and they were killed or kidnapped at a rate equivalent to that of the foreign fighters. The unfavorable results of that three and a half year effort has inclined the Pakistani government to shy away from major operations targeting militants other than those responsible for attacks inside Pakistan. This time, however, the CIA supported Pakistan in its efforts to eliminate that country’s top threat by firing the rocket that killed him, and the U.S. will likely be looking for Pakistan to reciprocate. With the Taliban leadership in Waziristan currently in disarray, and a potential splintering of the TTP, the Pakistani military may view this as an opportunity to cooperate with the United States and act upon some of the networks that use Waziristan as a base to prepare for, train, and conduct operations against American and NATO forces in Afghanistan.
The military could successfully execute such a strategy during one of two time windows. The first window is now – the immediate aftermath of Beitullah’s death – when his men lack a clear leader to coordinate offensive operations against the Pakistani military. If this window of time escapes the Pakistani military, then a second window will only open if the TTP’s power struggle continues to a point that Beitullah’s men splinter into multiple groups under different leadership. In that situation, the military would need to play the new groups off one another, attempting to make non-aggression pacts with certain ones, while meanwhile capitalizing on the network’s diminished numbers and competing commanders. Both of these scenarios would free up Pakistani military resources to target a new enemy in Waziristan.
The plan, thus, would also require the Pakistani government to cooperate with the United States military and intelligence communities to determine a new target for its operations. The U.S. would undoubtedly like to see the Pakistani military target the Haqqani network and its commander Sirrajuddin Haqqani, who use the areas around Miranshah and Mir Ali, both in North Waziristan, as bases from which to launch massive attacks – often times with suicide bombings – in parts of eastern Afghanistan. The U.S. military has labeled Sirrajuddin Haqqani as the greatest threat to security in eastern Afghanistan, and the State Department earlier this year put a $5 million reward out for information leading to his death or apprehension. The Haqqani network operates a number of religious and military training camps throughout Waziristan and relies heavily upon foreign fighters to execute its attacks in Afghanistan.
An operation targeting the Haqqani network could require a redeployment of Pakistani troops (likely units from the 9th infantry division currently operating in South Waziristan) from parts of South Waziristan to North Waziristan. The military would likely use a blockade strategy similar to the one it used against Beitullah Mehsud, which would entail setting up checkpoints on the roads leading to Miranshah and Mir Ali.
The Pakistani military would then have to determine the most effective way to weaken the Haqqani network and hinder its operations in Afghanistan. There are two plausible scenarios. First, the military could conduct ground offensives in conjunction with air strikes on known Haqqani madrassas, training camps and strongholds, in addition to isolating the network. A primary target would be the Manba Ulom madrassa near Miranshah, which intelligence sources suggest is the headquarters of the network. An initial raid could yield further intelligence regarding other bases and training facilities operated by the network. This strategy could potentially disrupt militant training, allow for the seizing of weapons caches by the military, and put a dent in the estimated 7,000 fighters under Haqqani’s command. As a model, the Pakistani military could attempt to emulate the efforts of American forces targeting Haqqani strongholds on the Afghan side of the border.
An alternative way for the Pakistani military to weaken the Haqqani network would be to eliminate the network’s top leadership through air strikes and intelligence cooperation with the CIA, thereby replicating the model it used to kill Beitullah Mehsud. Such a strategy would need to focus on killing three key players in the group: the aforementioned Sirajuddin Haqqani; the group’s founder and Sirajuddin’s father, Jalaluddin Haqqani; and senior military commander and member of the Haqqani’s Zadran tribe, Mullah Sangeen. The elimination of these three figures could cause an immediate disruption in the network’s ability to conduct operations, and it could lead to a power struggle and potential splintering within the network. The Haqqani network is composed of a heterogeneous fighting force, made up of Afghans, Arabs, Pakistanis, Uzbeks, and Chechens. They remain loyal to the Haqqani family in part because of its financial and military resources, but also because of the aura attached to Jalaluddin Haqqani, a larger-than-life figure famous for fighting the Soviets in the 1980s. The elimination of the network’s leadership could precipitate a power vacuum, pitting leaders of the network’s different factions, including Uzbeks from the Islamic Jihad Union (IJU) and Arabs from al-Qaeda, against one another in a bloody struggle for control. Ultimately, this situation could lead to the factions falling under autonomous and less effective leadership, followed by a battle for Haqqani resources. Such a scenario would likely weaken the network’s ability to attack U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
The U.S. may hope for the Pakistani military to conduct such an operation, especially in return for the CIA’s assistance in killing Beitullah Mehsud, but, in reality, the Pakistani military may hesitate to do so for several reasons. First, the ISI has extremely close ties to the Haqqani network leadership, which date back to the 1980s. Pakistan’s army chief, Ashfaq Kayani, in 2008 reportedly referred to the Haqqanis as a “strategic asset” because of the political influence they yield in Afghanistan. A top ISI official reportedly held talks with Sirajuddin Haqqani as recently as March of this year. Secondly, Haqqani operates around the same area as local Taliban leader Hafiz Gul Bahadur, who could potentially elect to fight alongside the Haqqanis, especially in an effort to secure Sirajuddin Haqqani’s blessing during the current (or future) power struggle taking place amongst Waziristan Taliban factions. Gul Bahadur has previously demonstrated fealty to the Haqqanis by allowing fighters from the Haqqani network to pass through his areas of influence en route to Afghanistan, and, in September 2006, signing a peace deal with the Pakistani government negotiated by Haqqani leadership. Gul Bahadur’s men over the past month have launched a series of attacks on Pakistani military installations, convoys, and checkpoints, including a July 28 suicide attack, in which the suicide bomber may have even been supplied by or trained by the Haqqani network (this speculation, however, is impossible to corroborate). Finally, the Pakistani government will likely want to avoid having the Haqqani network turn its well-trained forces on the Pakistani state, especially after it just eliminated Beitullah Mehsud (contrarily, a scenario in which the Haqqani network did turn against the Pakistani state could ironically provide the Pakistani government with the popular support needed to launch a full-fledged operation against the network). Even if Pakistan decided not to go after the Haqqani network, the U.S. would still welcome its support in shifting military operations to go after Taliban leaders in Waziristan that support the jihad in Afghanistan, such as Nazir or Gul Bahadur.
A final military option that Pakistan may choose regarding its troops in Waziristan would be to use Beitullah Mehsud’s death as an excuse to end operations in Waziristan and redeploy troops to the Northwest Frontier Province, especially to the Malakand division, which includes the Swat Valley, where the military continues clearing operations. Pakistani army officials still express fear that the Taliban maintains enough of a presence in the region to threaten its security despite the end of major operations in Swat in early July, and the return of over 765,000 IDPs to their homes. Operations there have killed a government-estimated 1,800 militants, but they have failed to eliminate the Taliban’s leadership in the region, including its commander, Mullah Fazlullah. Currently, the Pakistani military is relying on poorly trained and sometimes unreliable lashkars to patrol cities and towns and apprehend militants throughout the Malakand division. The military may view the killing of Beitullah Mehsud as an opportunity to move some of its troops from Waziristan to the districts of Swat, Malakand, Upper and Lower Dir, Shangla, and Buner to maintain stability in that region and root militants out of their mountainous hideouts.
The military option the Pakistani government elects to pursue will reflect on its commitment to the war on terror and its partnership with the United States. Pakistan will demonstrate a continued willingness to try to defeat the Taliban that operates against Islamabad if it chooses to maintain the status quo or elects to dismantle the TTP completely. At the same time, however, such an approach would indicate Pakistan’s desire to conduct operations on its own terms, with its own objectives. Islamabad will signal a serious commitment in defeating terror and a strengthening relationship with the United States if it elects to cooperate with the United States and target groups that threaten U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan. Finally, Washington will have the right to question Islamabad’s motives and commitment to the war on terror if Pakistan decides to abandon operations altogether or greatly reduce them in Waziristan now that Beitullah Mehsud has died. Pakistan’s upcoming decision on future military operations will prove critical to the war on terror and its relationship with the United States.