Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

October 17, 2009

Pakistan begins ground operations against Taliban (and AQ) in South Waziristan

Filed under: International HLS,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on October 17, 2009


The map above is provided by the BBC.  It shows real-time reports coming in from journalists and others on the ground as of 0900 Eastern on Saturday.

You can follow local coverage at www.dawn.com.  This is one of the most trustworthy local English language media operations in Pakistan.

Another source of value-added and usually reliable information is Bill Roggio at the Long War Journal (www.longwarjournal.org).

Early reports are available from the New York Times, The Telegraph, and most mainstream media. 

The last time the Pakistani military moved into Waziristan they were badly bruised.  When they withdrew, ancient antagonisms were given new ambition.  This time the army leadership realizes they are probably fighting for the survival of the Pakistani state.  This fight may also improve conditions for a successful outcome of the US/NATO operation in Afghanistan.

In any case, a victory will be hard-won, failure will come at a steep price, and anything in-between will be excruciating.


With reports by Saeed Shah in Lahore, Emal Khan in Peshawar and Dean Nelson in London, The Telegraph has a helpful overview of the operation that was launched about midnight Saturday in Pakistan. 

The long-awaited army ground offensive had been delayed for weeks as army generals agonised over how the country would cope with the militant backlash which would inevitably follow an all-out assault in the Taliban’s heartland.

The breakthrough came late on Friday night when, in a highly unusual move, the Chief of Army Staff, General Ashfaq Kiyani, summoned the all the main opposition party leaders to a meeting at the home of the prime minister, Yousuf Raza Gilani.

There, they were asked for united support for what would be one of the army’s most controversial operations: the use of overwhelming force against their own people – many of them tribal militants who had once been trained and encouraged by some of the leaders and generals now moving against them.

In an essay filed with The Telegraph from London, Ahmed Rashid, a long-time Pakistani journalist and author of The Taliban, could not be more stark regarding what is at stake in this fight.

Pakistan’s militants are intent on nothing less than toppling the government, assassinating the ruling establishment, imposing an Islamic state and getting hold of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons.

Regular readers of The Watch will recall that while I have long advocated Pakistani operations in Waziristan, I have not been surprised by the long delay.  If not for the audacious Taliban attacks of the last two weeks, I wonder if delay might have continued right into the winter snows.   M. Ilyas Khan, writing for the BBC from Islamabad, offers his explanation for the doubts that delayed Waziristan attack.


Despite several reports of “heavy” Taliban resistance, the Sunday edition of DAWN includes,

Ground forces launched the three-pronged push on Saturday, starting a much-anticipated assault in a bid to crush networks blamed for some of the worst attacks that have killed more than 2,250 people over the past two years. ‘The resistance is not as stiff as we were expecting, maybe because we are still moving and not yet reached the strongholds of the Taliban like Kotkai, Makin, Ladha and Kanigurram,’ one military official told AFP.

Jay Shankar reporting for Bloomberg has about the best, if still spotty,  description of the tactical situation I can find.  A couple of hours after Mr. Shankar,  at about 9AM eastern, the BBC is providing a good update.

Shortly before 2:00 eastern on Sunday Jane Perlez’ update on the battle appeared in the New York Times.  She reports,

… the Taliban said part of their strategy was to encourage the military to progress deeper into the militant enclave in the center of South Waziristan, and then tie the soldiers down with hit-and-run tactics that would keep the soldiers in a protracted campaign in the inhospitable terrain over the winter. The government forces would be hit hard once they penetrated further into the mountains, the favorite fighting areas for the militants, a Taliban organizer who is not involved in the current fighting said by telephone on Sunday from Wana, the capital of South Waziristan.

Gen. David Petraeus, chief of US Central Command, will arrive in Pakistan on Monday for consultations.

An official report on the first 24 hours of combat is available from the Pakistan Inter Services Public Relations website.  The government operated Associated Press of Pakistan also provides details difficult to find elsewhere.

In a Saturday interview with CNN, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said,  “I’m very impressed with the commitment that the Pakistani government, both the civilian leadership and the military have made… They’re very much focused on also going into the heartland of where the Pakistani Taliban and Al Qaeda are located and where these plots and these attacks are planned and directed.”  The Secretary’s comments came in the context of several questions related to US strategy in Afghanistan. (CNN Transcript via the Boston Globe.)

Nick Meo has an interesting report in the Sunday Telegraph, Taliban’s Afghan allies tell Barack Obama: “Cut us a deal and we’ll ditch al-Qaeda’.


From today’s edition of DAWN:

The army says it has surrounded the militants in their main zone, a wedge of territory in the north of South Waziristan, and soldiers backed by aircraft and artillery are attacking from the north, southwest and southeast… the offensive could be its toughest test since the militants turned on the state, and the army will be hoping Afghan Taliban factions elsewhere in South Waziristan and in North Waziristan stay out of the fight.

Declan Walsh reporting for The Guardian from Islamabad writes,

Soldiers are attacking the Mehsud territory from Razmak in the north, Jandola in the east and Wana in the south. Officials estimate the drive will take a minimum of six weeks and could stretch through the winter. The non-Mehsud parts of South Waziristan, which are controlled by the rival Wazir tribe and border with Afghanistan, have not been affected.

Dean Nelson, writing in the Monday morning Telegraph, offers a sobering analysis of the situation facing Pakistan, including,

After the American-led offensive in Afghanistan that ousted Mullah Omar’s Taliban regime in 2001, several key Taliban figures were protected by the Pakistan army, which still regards them as “strategic assets”. Jalaluddin Haqqani and his son, Sirajuddin, are among them. They continue to organise attacks on Nato forces from Waziristan, unmolested or challenged by the Pakistan army.

The Pakistan military believes the Americans and the British will withdraw from Afghanistan – and when they do they will need old Taliban friends such as Haqqani once again to minimise the influence of its Indian enemy in its Afghan back yard. It is for this reason too that Islamabad has turned a blind eye to the presence of Mullah Omar’s Quetta Shura, the ruling council that co-ordinates the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan from a hideout close to the Balochistan state capital.

These leaders are what the Pakistan military have in mind when they talk of “good” and “bad” Taliban – those who pose a threat to Pakistan and those who do not. Those who pose a mortal threat to British and American troops over the border can still be “good Taliban” in Pakistan.

It is the rise of the “very bad Taliban”, such as Hakimullah Mehsud’s pro-al-Qaeda Tehrik e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) – which threatens both Pakistan and Nato forces in Afghanistan – that has brought the largest deployment of Pakistani troops to the tribal areas since the British Indian Army arrived in the Thirties to crush the Faqir of Ipi’s jihad against the Raj.

Senator John Kerry is in Islamabad and Rawalpindi for discussions with Pakistani leadership (as is Gen. Petraeus).  This morning’s Pakistani media is giving significant attention to Sen. Kerry’s comments Sunday morning on State of the Union with John King.  Here’s what DAWN is reporting:

Asked if he believed that a ‘giant US presence’ in Afghanistan would do more harm than good to Pakistan, the senator said: ‘there is a legitimate question about whether or not a certain number of troops, depending on their mission, might drive people into Pakistan, and thereby present further difficulties in the western part of that country or even fuel the extremism there.’

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Comment by William R. Cumming

October 17, 2009 @ 2:28 pm

Will be interesting to watch the outcome of this op! Perhaps like the outcome of the Basra offensive of the Iraqi government stalmate but perhaps not. The problem I have is that essentially a civil war has now broken out in Pakistan. No one else uses that term preferring other adjectives. My guess is that the Pakistan military performance will again show major deficiencies and inability to accomplish their mission. And exactly what is their mission? Assertion of government control and support from the Tribal areas? To late for that IMO. But time will tell. I would argue that US predator strikes forced the hands of all parties in the Tribal Areas to a faceoff. But may take years to prove that the ultimate destabilization of Pakistan was because of American predator strikes and covert ops. The Pakistani government and military by refusing US boots on the ground in country whatever the merits have ended up in exactly the same place as their fears if they allowed that course of events. Again IMO. Time will tell. The odd thing is that the Pakistani Special Weapons arsenal may be the last unifying factor in the mind of both the government and military. The question I have is do the Islamic militants value the Islamic bomb more than a dominant Muslim nation-state. My guess is that they have no concern for Pakistan’s future as a nation-state.

Comment by christopher tingus

October 18, 2009 @ 4:34 am

Many of us concur with William Cumming’s insight.

Since this AfPak scenario is a priority interest to global security, I do hope many other readers will share their perspective.

Certainly hoping that those close to the issue will afford us their views on the real possibility of a Pakistani Army coup – I know many friends and even business associates in India have little confidence on matters across the border.

Thank you.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

October 18, 2009 @ 6:27 am

Per your concern related to a Pakistani military coup, worth reading a Friday piece by Ahmed Rashid at the BBC:


I still find it difficult to imagine a coup in the next six months or so. I perceive the military can achieve most of its political goals without exposing itself to the extra risks a coup would entail.

Comment by William R. Cumming

October 18, 2009 @ 7:55 am

Phil! Read the article included in your comment.
Reinforces my conclusion that coup is near. The bill discussed in artlicle has been signed into law. Senator Kerry showing the same gumption that got him 3 purple hearts without an overnight stay in the hospital already has tried to dismiss some of the key demands and mandates in the signed law. So much for oath of office. Just as there will be no full and free investigation of torture history of US INTEL and military because it would heavily implicate both DEMS and REPUBLICANs the current op in the Tribal areas forces those in Pakistani military to choose sides between Pakistani government and those who have loyally served the INTEL arm of the Pakistani government and the military arm of the same. Factionalism and proto politics under the guise of respect for civilian control is in reality militarism that has racked Pakistan since its independence. Without a thorough and effective purging of those in Pakistan military that support both AQ and Taliban there will be no effective op in the Tribal areas. There may be spin to its effectiveness. But the more effective it is the more it will harden those splits in the Pakistani INTEL and military commands and make more likely a coup. Time will tell of course. Basically just like the US too many flag rank officers and few who are true democrats and believe they defend the Constitution as opposed to their chain of command. Dangerous for all!

Comment by Philip J. Palin

October 18, 2009 @ 8:20 am

Bill, I agree the Rashid piece is supportive of your guess that a coup is “around the corner.” And I have found Rashid to be among the most insightful of local sources. Further, the Pakistani military is predisposed to coups. Further, if the current operation in Waziristan goes very badly, I can imagine an intra-military coup.

Unlike many (most?) bloggers, I don’t just link to evidence that supports my own point of view.

But while all of this is possible, in my judgment, a coup remains contrary to the current self-interest of the military elite and of Pakistan. Recognizing utilitarianism can be a blinder as much as any other angle-on-reality, until I see something substantial change on the ground that will change the military’s perception of its self-interest, I continue to consider a coup unlikely.

I will continue to post evidence and argument both ways.

Comment by William R. Cumming

October 19, 2009 @ 11:03 am

The fundamental problem facing the Pakistani military now is that any effort in the Tribal Regions forces each member of the military to choose sides and his/her future based on events. Actual ops force the hands of many and of course the audit of war can often have fallout completely unanticipated by both sides of the effort and its aims. It looks to me by staying well under 50,000 the Pakistani’s have choosen to hedge their bets and are actually fighting not for control over the tribal errors but to put on a show for the US and visiting bigwigs. Recent prominence of retired Army officer Lewis Sorley and his writings on Viet Nam seem superficially to have appeal and application to Pakistan and AF-PAK theatre generally. What this really indicates is the lack of understanding and depth in US policy making ranks over what to do in AF-Pak! So perhaps the Pakistani’s judgement that do just enough to soothe the beast–US continued aid for an essentially bankrupt country very hard hit by current worldwide recession is correct strategm for them. Is it correct for US? Time will tell. The rest of the world stands back to admire the enormous incompetence of US effort and the inadquacy of a Pakistani military being outfought and outthought by elements wishing to threaten Pakistan as a nation-state. Underestimation of threat has been consistent Pakistani INTEL weakness and suggest because of Group Think in the Officer’s Clubs. What do we know of what units and what leadership is conducting the OPS in Tribal Areas? How much Pashtun membership in units involved?

Comment by William R. Cumming

October 20, 2009 @ 11:55 am

Is my understanding correct that this is largely a Pashtun versus Pathan op?

Comment by Philip J. Palin

October 21, 2009 @ 5:23 am

I have been trying to find — and have so far been unable to do so — some specific information on the ethnic/tribal composition of the two army divisions that have been specifically assigned to the operation in Waziristan. I will say that — taken as a whole — Pakistan’s army includes a Pashtun proportion that is higher than the population at large. There is, in fact, a long tradition of members of the Mehsud tribe having prominent places in the national military. The Mehsuds, much more than the Waziris, have aspired to a cosmopolitan role. We have also seen in recent days how the military is very engaged in exploiting intra-Pashtun rivalries to its advantage. So… until I have persuasive evidence otherwise, I am reluctant to frame this an ethnic conflict.

Comment by William R. Cumming

October 21, 2009 @ 11:31 pm

Phil! Thanks very much for the research and agree that ethnicity for this op at least not outcome determative.

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