It’s difficult to make out precisely what’s happening in South Waziristan, but there are certainly indications that Pakistan is preparing a major offensive against Taliban and al-Qaeda militants there. Ever since President Musharraf moved against the radical Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) in the capital of Islamabad last summer, Taliban commander Baitullah Mehsud has masterminded a series of terrorist attacks in Pakistan’s cities, many directed against military installations. The object has been to discourage military expeditions against Islamists in the tribal regions, to destabilize the government, and if possible to overthrow it. Baitullah Mehsud has also been charged by both the government of Pakistan and the CIA with masterminding the assassination of Benazir Bhutto.
President Musharraf has been greatly weakened by domestic and international anger at his emergency rule, by the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, and by domestic anger at his cooperation with the United States in the war on terror. Even parts of Musharraf’s power-base of retired military officers have begun to call for his removal. Paradoxically, Musharraf’s weakness may actually be contributing to a willingness to move aggressively against the Islamists’ central stronghold in Waziristan.
Recent news out of Waziristan has featured attacks by Mehsud’s forces against several forts in South Waziristan. These reports make it seem as though the Taliban has the initiative in South Waziristan, and to some degree that is true. Yet there are indications that the full story is considerably more complicated. By taking advantage of tribal ambivalence about the presence of foreign Uzbek militants allied with Baitullah Mehsud and al-Qaeda, the government appears to have helped split the minority Wazir tribe off from the Mehsuds (South Waziristan’s majority tribe, and the key supporters of Baitullah Mehsud’s Taliban).
While solidifying a Wazir/Mahsud split over the presence of the Uzbeks, the government has also cut off outside food supplies to Mehsud-controlled areas of South Waziristan (while allowing food and other goods to come through to the Wazirs). A pattern is developing which resembles the run-up to Pakistan’s successful offensive against the Taliban in Swat. There the government cut off food supplies to the area, and warned the public to leave, creating a flood of refugees in advance of the assault. Now, although food deliveries to the Mehsuds have been quietly cut off, no open warning has been given for the public to leave. Many are fleeing, however, and the government has set up refugee camps, which at the moment remain empty. There has also been sustained shelling of Mehsud strongholds, including attacks by fighter aircraft. The pattern certainly seems to echo the preparations for the army’s assault on Swat.
The offensive in Swat, a key development in the war on terror, was disgracefully under-reported by the mainstream media, since it tended to validate Musharraf’s claim that emergency rule would make it easier to go after militants in the northwest. With media coverage freer now, the government may be reluctant to tout a pending offensive against the Taliban’s key refuge as boldly as it announced the offensive in Swat. And unlike Swat, South Waziristan is very much the heart of the insurgency. An assault here at a politically delicate time is far more likely to provoke anger among Islamist sympathizers throughout Pakistan. Baitullah Mehsud has threatened major terrorist attacks on Pakistani security installations in the capital if he is attacked in his stronghold. The possibilities for destabilization are serious, and the government may therefore want to downplay any coming assault.
Yet large number of regular army troops are accumulating in the area, and an assault using tanks, heavy artillery, and helicopter gunships has already been launched. The government has also pledged to clear Baitullah Mehsud’s fighters out of their hiding places once and for all. While the government continues to speak merely of bringing “reinforcements” into the area, it certainly sounds like a more ambitious offensive. The Swat campaign relied chiefly on artillery and helicopters. The addition of tanks and fighter aircraft seems to be a sign of the seriousness and difficulty of what could be a major operation. Meanwhile, work has just been completed on an expansion of the airstrip in Wana, stronghold and administrative center of the Wazir tribe in South Waziristan. The airstrip is now capable of receiving C-130 aircraft, thereby avoiding much more dangerous military resupply routes through the mountains.
So at a minimum, we have to modify our picture of a weakened Pakistani army being pushed around by an aggressive Baitullah Mehsud. A significant clash is developing. Perhaps the Pakistani army has merely been forced into action in response to Mehsud’s attacks. But another reading of events is at least possible. The Pakistani government may be more in control of the situation than it first appears. Having used the battle over the Uzbek presence to split the Wazirs off from the Mehsuds, the government has in effect surrounded the Mehsuds in South Waziristan, cut off their supplies from the outside, and begun to soften them up with persistent shelling and air attacks. Baitullah’s assault on the forts was essentially an attempt to break out of this encirclement, and a warning against a more concerted offensive. Maybe it will work, but there are clearly signs that a broader offensive may be underway, and has in fact been planned all along.
The recent meetings between Adm. William Fallon, the senior American military commander in the Middle East, and the head of Pakistan’s army fit nicely into this picture. America would like to take on the Taliban in its home base in Pakistan before the Taliban’s spring offensive in Afghanistan begins. Musharraf’s political weakness may actually have created precisely the conditions we need to see a serious offensive in Waziristan. Musharraf is trying to prove to us that we need him, and that he can deliver. The Pakistani army’s successful assault on Swat was clearly a confidence builder, and even the Anbar tribal strategy is seeing a kind of revival in a Pakistani context.