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.
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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."