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Insurgents putting up a tough fight in Waziristan operation, analysts say

By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 24, 2009

Pakistan's offensive in the Taliban stronghold of South Waziristan has met with significant resistance from insurgents, who have retaken one large town, targeted military vehicles with roadside bombs and held off the army's attack helicopters with antiaircraft fire, U.S. military analysts said Friday.

The heavy fighting has slowed the advance of an estimated 36,000 to 40,000 Pakistani troops into the heart of the contested tribal region bordering Afghanistan, according to a detailed briefing on the week-old ground operation by researchers at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a Washington think tank. Meanwhile, the report said, insurgents continue to coordinate suicide bombings and assassinations outside Waziristan.

But the large government force, aided by U.S. drone strikes and intelligence, outnumbers the insurgents and is expected to maintain its methodical, three-pronged push in an attempt to capture key territory held by the umbrella group Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan in the tribal stronghold of slain insurgent leader Baitullah Mehsud.

"I am not surprised that they [Taliban insurgents] are opting for a pitched battle here," said Frederick W. Kagan, director of the Critical Threats Project at AEI, which compiled the briefing report primarily from Pakistani military reports and local news sources. "This is their home town," he said.

The operation's success remains uncertain, given that government forces have not yet taken key towns such as Makeen and Kotkai, according to Kagan and AEI researchers Reza Jan and Charlie Szrom, who prepared the briefing.

"Makeen is probably going to be their hardest fight," Kagan said, noting that several government troops have been killed or injured in rocket attacks in the vicinity.

Last Saturday, Pakistani troops' advance toward Kotkai was slowed by the large numbers of roadside bombs, which killed at least one soldier. The soldiers surrounded Kotkai and destroyed the houses of some key insurgent leaders there, but the Taliban launched a counteroffensive and retook Kotkai on Tuesday morning, according to the briefing.

Still, Pakistan's army is demonstrating more sophistication this time around in the use of counterinsurgency tactics compared with its 2004 incursion into Waziristan. For example, although most of the estimated 5,000 residents of Kotkai are thought to have fled, the military has not flattened the town with artillery fire and instead plans to move in in "a more measured way," Kagan said.

More than 200,000 civilians have fled the tribal area, overwhelming government centers designed to aid them, while other residents remain caught between the army and the insurgents, according to the briefing.

Some of the fighting could spill into Afghanistan, if insurgents from Pakistan seek to flee there, and Pakistan's military used Cobra helicopter gunships this week to strike Taliban positions near the border. The neighboring Afghan province of Paktika, where the U.S. military has recently pulled out of some small border posts, is particularly vulnerable, the report said.

The Pakistani force conducting the Waziristan operation comprises about 30,000 soldiers from the 7th Infantry Division and 9th Infantry Division of the army's XI Corps, based in Peshawar, and 10,000 members of the Frontier Corps, which operates in western tribal areas, as well as 500 Special Services Group commandos and two army aviation squadrons, according to the briefing.

A vital question, Kagan said, is whether the Pakistani forces will be able to hold areas after an estimated six- to eight-week campaign to clear out insurgents. "Will there be a hold phase? We don't know," he said. He predicted that Pakistani commanders would use the tribally recruited Frontier Corps, backed by regular soldiers, to police areas after they have been pacified.

If the operation succeeds, Kagan said, it would deal an unprecedented blow to the Pakistan-based Taliban group. "It's a pretty well-coordinated plan, but it hasn't gotten to the objective yet," he said.

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