Pakistan's North Waziristan Militant Challenge
A senior Pakistani general responsible for operations in northwest Pakistan denied media reports on June 1 that the Pakistani military would soon commence military operations in North Waziristan, an operation the United States has long requested. Pakistan has an imperative to take out the command and control of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, which is most likely in North Waziristan. STRATFOR has long held that such an operation will occur. Whether it will be effective is another matter.
Pakistani Lt. Gen. Asif Yasin Malik, the commander of the Peshawar-based XI Corps, denied on June 1 that a military operation in North Waziristan was imminent. The XI Corps is responsible for operations in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). He instead said the military would mount a full-scale operation in Kurram, which is just north of North Waziristan, and presumably would help to cordon militants in the latter agency. Renewed speculation regarding such an operation in North Waziristan began with a May 30 article that cited anonymous "highly placed" military sources in Pakistani daily The News, which previously has run similar reports. Dawn, another daily, quoted anonymous military sources June 1 as saying such an operation would happen but that it would be primarily focused on al Qaeda, foreign fighters and their major ally, the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).
North Waziristan is the only agency of the tribal badlands straddling Afghanistan and Pakistan in which Pakistani forces have not yet engaged in any major air or ground operations. Though a showdown there has been a long time in coming, the Pakistani military does not want to appear to be bending to American demands. However, given that the TTP has once again in the last few months demonstrated its ability to attack across Pakistan, it is now in Pakistan's national interest to disrupt TTP operations. Just how and when it will strike, and what effect such a move will have, remain unclear.
According to some, the Pakistani move to expand the counterinsurgency into North Waziristan resulted from a deal between Pakistan's civil-military leadership and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen, both of whom were in Islamabad for a short visit late last week. As U.S. officials claim once again that they have pushed Pakistan into tackling militants, and will probably continue unmanned aerial vehicle operations, the Pakistani opponents of such an operation will claim the civilian and military leadership is under the thumb of the Americans. This could increase militants' ability to recruit and could attract more groups into the TTP fold.
Pakistan's challenge is to eliminate its primary militant enemy, the TTP, while retaining potential assets that allow it to influence events in Afghanistan, like the Haqqani network, and not pushing neutral militants, like Hafiz Gul Bahadur's forces, into the arms of the TTP and its international jihadist allies -- all while satisfying U.S. demands to go after Bahadur's militants and the Haqqani network. The latter two groups are neutral toward the Pakistani state. The United States would like Pakistan to attack the Haqqani network, which is generally in the northern parts of North Waziristan, and Bahadur's militants, generally located in the southern parts. Both groups are involved in supporting the Afghan Taliban insurgency.
Caught between the Americans and jihadists, the Pakistanis face a more difficult situation than they have faced since the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan began in 2001. The killing of Osama bin Laden demonstrated just how much Pakistan does not know about U.S. intelligence operations in Pakistan. Meanwhile, militants have been attempting to infiltrate the intelligence and military services to protect their own and carry out attacks on Pakistani military targets.
Islamabad's conflicting statements reflect the Pakistani leadership's efforts to juggle these challenges and demands. From the Pakistani point of view, a North Waziristan operation could reduce pressures from Washington, particularly after the discovery of bin Laden in Pakistan. Any new Pakistani operations will focus on the TTP, al Qaeda and others that specifically threaten the Pakistani state rather than the United States' preferred targets, however.
The May 23 TTP attack on Pakistani Naval Station Mehran has created a new sense of public urgency behind plans to go after the militant group's command and control capabilities and operational planning. Operations in parts of South Waziristan have caused these elements of the TTP to spread out across Pakistan. The problem, according to STRATFOR Pakistani sources, is that intelligence on militant networks and leadership in North Waziristan is limited, but the core TTP leadership is indeed believed to be based there.
Pakistani leaders now face a complex challenge in determining how to reduce TTP capabilities without worsening the insurgency or undermining their gains in other tribal regions. Assuming Islamabad decides to move in North Waziristan rather than to hunt down militants across Pakistan, whether the Pakistanis can degrade the TTP leadership in North Waziristan remains unclear. The TTP has proved resilient in the face of clearing operations elsewhere in FATA. Moreover, the TTP has a diffuse network of tactical capabilities across the country, from Karachi to Peshawar, meaning the group might be able to continue operations regardless of any Pakistani action in North Waziristan.
The rumored operation will take time to prepare and will probably begin with Pakistani airstrikes. Unlike South Waziristan, which was previously a no-go region for the Pakistani military, a division of troops already is stationed in North Waziristan, with headquarters in Miram Shah and brigade-level command centers in Mir Ali, Datta Khel and Razmak. The scale and scope of operations will dictate whether existing forces will be sufficient or whether more will need to be moved into position.
The intricate militant landscape in North Waziristan and weak human intelligence capabilities further complicate matters. Pakistan's military resources are limited, and it needs to engage in more precise strikes and targeted, economy-of-force clearing operations to avoid collateral damage and to conserve its resources.
The Pakistani concept of operations has always been selective, involving the concentration of forces in key areas and targeting specific groups that are most hostile to the Pakistani state. The South Waziristan campaign, for example, only encompassed portions of the district -- not the ones near the Afghan border of concern to the United States. (Efforts to the north in Swat were more comprehensive.)
The problem is deeper than Pakistan's selectivity about which groups it targets. Islamabad's writ has never truly been enforced in such far-flung tribal areas. Its governance has long relied on political agents (the political leader of each agency) and arrangements with tribal elders. The paramilitary Frontier Corps and the other elements that make up the loose patchwork of security forces in FATA have limited resources and capabilities. Regular army reinforcements have helped, but after clearing specific areas -- often ruthlessly -- they are stuck occupying them. Any movement to a new objective leaves the cleared area unsecured and vulnerable. As a result, what troops Pakistan has committed remain bogged down and stretched thin, even though they have only cleared portions of FATA.
Ultimately, Pakistan has yet to settle on lasting political arrangements that allow temporary military gains to become sustainable, so the situation in already cleared areas will remain tenuous. Militant factions have continued to carry out attacks in the Waziri areas in South Waziristan; Tirah Valley in Khyber agency; upper Orakzai, lower Kurram and Safi Tehsil in Mohmand agency; and parts of Bajaur. Despite often-ruthless tactics, military efforts have failed to crush the TTP in these districts. This makes major, new clearing and pacification operations in rugged, mountainous terrain of limited attractiveness despite security imperatives. Even if the Pakistanis manage to clear certain areas of North Waziristan, they have yet to demonstrate an adequate political and economic structure to secure and develop them.