Fine Print: Pakistani drive may be lesson for Afghanistan

A Pakistani police officer stands guard as displaced people who fled from Waziristan, where Pakistani security forces and militants are fighting, arrive at a checkpoint near Bannu, Pakistan.
A Pakistani police officer stands guard as displaced people who fled from Waziristan, where Pakistani security forces and militants are fighting, arrive at a checkpoint near Bannu, Pakistan. (B.k.bangash/associated Press)
Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Pakistan's military offensive in Waziristan, and the negotiations that preceded it, may be a paradigm for the U.S.-led coalition forces in Afghanistan as well as for the fight against al-Qaeda and other extreme Islamist groups in the Afghan-Pakistani border area.

That view emerged from a presentation on the fighting in Waziristan last Tuesday by Frederick Kagan and colleagues Reza Jan and Charlie Szrom at the American Enterprise Institute. Kagan was among those who promoted the idea of "surging" troops into Iraq, and in July he was one of the civilian experts who put together recommendations for Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal's assessment of the situation in Afghanistan.

The 37-page analysis of the Waziristan operation provides important background for those following Pakistan's long-awaited move against the Taliban, also known as the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).

The TTP is a collection of more than a dozen Pakistani factions, organized by Beitullah Mehsud in 2006. A member of the Pashtun Mehsud tribe whose branches populate much of South Waziristan, Mehsud sought to destabilize the Pakistani government of Gen. Pervez Musharraf, which Mehsud said was under U.S. control. According to Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, Pakistan's army chief of staff, Mehsud was responsible for 1,200 civilian deaths, including the December 2007 assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto.

After the Pakistani army's 2008 military offensive against Taliban elements in Bajaur, and its April 2009 move into Swat, Pakistan President Ali Asif Zardari announced in May that there would be an operation in Waziristan.

Some preparatory activities were already underway, according to the analysis by Kagan and his associates. With the paramilitary Frontier Corps in support, the Pakistani military gained control of some major road segments in the area, setting up blockades intended to separate Mehsud's Taliban in South Waziristan from its allies in North Waziristan and to block transfer of arms into the south. Aided by U.S. intelligence and Predator drones, air and ground artillery attacks also began on Taliban targets.

On Aug. 5, Mehsud was killed by a missile from a Predator while he and his wife were at the home of his father-in-law. That operation was attributed to intelligence arising from the blockaded road checkpoints and the increasingly close cooperation between U.S. and Pakistan intelligence and security forces. It resulted in tracking Mehsud's father-in-law to the house in the Zangar area of South Waziristan where the Taliban leader was found.

Negotiations with surrounding tribal groups went on for months. Efforts were aimed at either getting support for the move against the traditional Mehsud area, where the TTP was strongest, or having groups agree to refrain from joining the fight on the Taliban side. The military plan was to approach the targeted Mehsud area from three sides. In the southeast, the Pakistanis worked with Turkistan Bhittani, a pro-government leader whose tribal fighters at least a year before had driven Mehsud Taliban elements from their territory.

Maulvi Nazir Ahmad, once considered the second-most popular militant leader in South Waziristan to Mehsud, was concerned in the past about U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan. Early last year, he had formed an alliance with Mehsud, according to the Kagan analysis. Since then, U.S. drones had attacked his area at least nine times this year, according to the analysis.

However, over the summer, Pakistani officers, who had years earlier formed an alliance with Nazir Ahmad, bought off his support by guaranteeing that the U.S. drone attacks on his territory would halt, the analysis said. The result: Pakistani army forces gained use of the town of Wana in Nazir Ahmad's territory for their forces moving up from the southwest.

In the north, the deal was struck with Hafiz Gul Bahadur, considered the supreme commander of the North Waziristan Taliban, who has had an on-again, off-again peace deal with the Pakistani government. He agreed to remain neutral, allowing Razmak to be the supply point for troops coming down from the north. The agreement with him was that Pakistani army units could "transit his territory in exchange for fewer bombings and patrols" in his area, according to the analysis.

The Pakistani military's invasion of the Mehsud tribal heartland -- about 40,000 soldiers supported by helicopters and fighter bombers coming from three areas -- has progressed deliberately. Kotkai, the home town of Beitullah Mehsud's successor, Hakimullah Mehsud, and his top lieutenant, Qari Hussain, has been taken and their respective homes destroyed.

Kagan said he thinks the Pakistani military has learned lessons from its earlier efforts to defeat Afghan Taliban groups and is applying them to the current effort. If the Waziristan military campaign is successful, it must be followed by some troops remaining to hold the territory with Islamabad to support economic rebuilding. The positive effect of that could go beyond that immediate territory, he said, perhaps even to Afghanistan.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company