Pakistan Army's challenge: holding onto gains against militants

As the government prepares for a major operation in South Waziristan, it's eyeing lessons learned from previous campaigns that were cut short in the face of weak public support.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

As the Pakistani military zeros in on Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud in South Waziristan, it is trying to break a pattern in which initially successful operations have lost ground, allowing militants to regain their strength.

Previous operations to flush out militancy have faltered for a number of factors. This time, say analysts, the military is better prepared in counterinsurgency tactics, as seen in its recent battle in the Swat Valley. Most crucially, the government's efforts have popular support, something that's often been lacking in previous operations.

"A lot has changed both globally and domestically," says Badar Alam, a senior editor at Herald, a leading political magazine. "All these factors have ganged up to give the operation the force that it has."

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Unsustained operations

Brig. Mahmood Shah (ret.), a security analyst and the former senior bureaucrat of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, says that governments in the past have not been willing to fully tackle militants because of public skepticism.

Brigadier Shah cites a peace deal struck in the aftermath of the first major-scale operation in February 2005.

"We had Baitullah on the ropes," he says, adding that Mr. Mehsud, at the time, was forced to seek refuge in North Waziristan. But fighting stopped, and Mehsud negotiated a fresh peace deal – which, because it was negotiated with militants, as opposed to the entire tribe, quickly fell apart.

Former military ruler Gen. Pervez Musharraf was unpopular for conducting these operations and was "constantly struggling to legitimize his rule," adds Shah.

The military next attempted to venture into the area in February 2008, when 350 Pakistani troops were forced to abandon the Ladha Fort in the militant stronghold of Makeen, in South Waziristan. That operation was also called off.

But now, a growing familiarity with the territory, which the Army had never entered prior to 2002, as well as experience gained from previous operational errors, should help, says Gen. Athar Abbas, an Army spokesperson.

And, because of the Army's gains against the Taliban in the recent offensive in Swat Valley, Mehsud's militias are now increasingly hemmed in. Recent media reports have suggested that Mehsud's men are falling back to their home turf.

"Swat, Bajaur, and Mohmand are under attack. He knows he is going to be the next target – it's only a question of when," says Ismail Khan, Peshawar bureau chief of Dawn, a leading English daily.

Suicide bomb in Kashmir

On Friday, Mehsud's forces claimed credit for a suicide bomb attack in Pakistani-administered Kashmir – the first attack of its kind in the region – which killed two soldiers and injured three others. The attack was widely interpreted as a retaliation following a week of preoffensive aerial attacks in South Wazirstan, aimed at softening up the militants.

"We are in a position to respond to the Army's attacks, and time will prove that these military operations have not weakened us," Hakimullah Mehsud, a deputy of Baitullah Mehsud, told the Associated Press.

Hassan Abbas, a research fellow at the Belfer Center at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., also cites as a stark change the gradual delinkage of Pakistan's military and intelligence establishment from its nexus with militants, whom the military traditionally viewed as a strategic asset.

"From the military establishment's perspective, there's a realization that those who we thought can be our friends, in fact have other agendas as well," he says, citing the growing existential threat faced by the state at the hands of militants it had nurtured for strategic depth in Afghanistan.

The upsurge in suicide bomb attacks on key security installations, including the recent bombing of the Inter Services Intelligence headquarters in Lahore, have played a large part in this change of perspective, he says.

Boots on the ground?

Much now hinges on whether the government is willing to send ground troops deep into South Waziristan to fight Mehsud's militia, estimated by General Abbas to be around 10,000 men.

"There won't be an effective campaign if it's aerial strikes only. What we need to see now is boots on the ground," says Dr. Abbas, the analyst.

Should that happen, the Pakistani military is likely to confront old weaknesses, including a lack of real-time intelligence provided by satellite intelligence, according to Shah.

But the relative success of the Swat operation proves that the old adage about the Army not being equipped to fight a counterinsurgency is simply not true, according to another Army spokesperson, Lt. Col. Baseer Malik. Still, he concedes, "we lack certain equipment: night-vision devices. And we could do with more helis and surveillance."

Though the military will be better prepared this time around, so, too, will the Taliban, according to Shah.

"Mehsud has become very powerful and the Army has to have an operation that has to be much more comprehensive than what we did [during my time]. He's become the center of gravity of terrorism, and you have to be a much more determined effort. He's well dug-in; he's more prepared."

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