June issue 2009
The Final Showdown
It is unwise to put deadlines on military campaigns against hardened hoodlums, especially if they are heavily funded, marvelously trained in guerilla warfare, and what is more, are driven by a fanatical sense of religious commitment to the cause of mayhem and murder.
It was not surprising therefore, that Chief of Army Staff General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani’s three-month time frame for completing the operations in Malakand had many under his command wondering whether it was a realistic goal. The problem, according to one commander who was part of the lengthy debate about the operational side of the military campaign, was not about the capability of the army to do the job. He claims that everyone agreed that the militants shall be eventually crushed and their command structure destroyed. The kernel of concern was that the army chief was unyielding on the 90-day limit and expected the entire area to be completely “sanitised” of the presence of the militants by then.
“Most military plans look good on paper, but after the first bullet is fired they are led by its consequences,” said the same commander. In an ideal world, Operation Rah-e-Haq 4 — renamed Operation Rah-e-Rast to make it distinct from the tame campaigns conducted under the original title — the army and the Frontier Corps, the twin arms of the might deployed against the Taliban, would prefer to complete their deployments across the entire stretch of the troubled frontier (in the north right up to Shangla and in the south, down to the outer end of South Waziristan) so that the militants could be hemmed in. Then later, as an extension of the same ideal plan, they would have liked to throw smaller nooses around the Taliban cutting them off from each other, pressing them into smaller zones, pounding them from the air, hitting them from the ground, and then taking them out in a close, deadly and decisive combat.
But sensing that time was running out, and an extended deployment in the north and south of the troubled frontier, apart from creating a logistical nightmare, would have taken away even the faintest element of surprise from the impending military action, the plan was replaced with a more “staggered operation.” Starting from the Malakand division and gradually extending into the north, Rah-e-Rast has transparent objectives: clear, hold and build. In the clearance phase, which is the most critical, and the one in operation right now, the most important factor was civilian casualties.
General Kayani reportedly told his commanders, “If at the end of the day the people of Swat and these areas are not going to appreciate this effort, it would not be worth the sacrifice.”
But retaining the goodwill of the people whose homes are under the gun, and who have left their land in one of the biggest internal displacements of recent times, is not an easy task.
The most problematic is the Taliban’s strategy to stay in the urban centres and use civilians as shields. While the exodus of the residents of this area has lessened the tragic impact of this strategy, deployment of tanks in crowded neighbourhods — a rare military tactic — and reliance on aerial strikes has a built-in fault to produce collateral damage.
“We are mindful of this side of the operations, and we will not pretend that there will not be civilian casualties but we have taken exceptional care while carrying out these operations,” says a commander directly involved in the execution of the battle plan. One such caution is observed during the selection of the target from the air.
Most of this selection is done from the ground: human intelligence against the Taliban has improved considerably. Once an area is pointed out, aerial surveillance confirms the target and before it is hit using Cobra Gunship helicopters, it is lit up from the ground with the help of laser pointers.
“A representative from every relevant department sits in the meeting where the targets are selected and, sometimes, even pilots are taken through an intensive familiarisation process,” says the commander.
From all accounts available, this is not a swift process and therefore, on many occasions, the targets have moved. But even then many of these strikes have been successful and the militant strongholds have been destroyed. However, civilian casualties have been reported, especially during curfew hours. In the battle for Buner, on the winding paths of the Ambela Pass, apart from a string of suicide vehicles, a truck carrying the family members of a para-military officer was hit and they were all killed. The truck can still be seen on the roadside under the pall of putrid smell. In Sultanwas, a stronghold of the militants who crossed over the mountain ridge from Mingora, Swat and expanded their zone of control in Buner, a family of nine was killed in an aerial strike. The surviving members are undergoing treatment in a hospital in Mardan.
These casualties can mount if the operation is to linger on, a possibility which the army high command is now trying to avoid, and where critics like those in the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) and Imran Khan, chief of Tehrik-e-Insaaf, are trying to exploit to their political advantage.
For these reasons, in the coming days, the army high command has recommended a further speeding up of the operation to stop the criticism from growing and undermining the whole idea of the operation: not just winning the territory back from the Taliban but also denying them public sympathy and political opinion.
But for now, as army units lunge from the heartland of Pakistan to reinforce forces already deployed in the inhospitable terrain of FATA and the Malakand division, the decisive battle planned against murderous gangs carrying the generic banner of the Taliban, seems set to peak. From all accounts available, another one of the aims of the battle plan is to deliver the knock-out punch to the core group of militants, the command structure, who are running that insurgency.
“We see this part of the plan to be the most important step to convince the people that this time the effort is not going to spare the top heads,” says a commander based in Peshawar. And just as well. The public has become quite cynical about these operations. Apart from dozens of smaller operations, this is the third time in the last two years that the army is attempting to cleanse the area of the Taliban influence. The first attempt in 2007 was largely successful as a handful of militants were chased out of their hideouts into the high-altitude Peochar valley. However, the subsequent elections and the political government’s desire to make peace with the local commanders led to their return — this time, in towns and crowded neighbourhoods. About 1,100 of the captured militants were also released, apparently when the military intelligence, then under the command of General Pervez Musharraf, put its foot down on this count.
When negotiations collapsed, another army operation started, which, while killing many innocent civilians through distant hitting by mortar shells, carefully avoided direct combat. The militants reinforced themselves, slaughtered hundreds of informers and intelligence operatives, chased the police and civil administration and turned urban areas under their control into a veritable fiefdom of fear. So much so that, left with no option, the government had to yield to appeasement tactics like the enforcement of the controversial Nizam-e-Adl regulations, simply to isolate the militants from the general public for whom the regulations meant speedy justice in a dysfunctional legal order.
For the army this meant a window of opportunity to claw back into the territory and position itself on grounds that had become completely hostile to any law enforcement agency’s presence.
Military commanders now claim that while they backed the Nizam-e-Adl regulations, they were never convinced that the octogenarian leader of Tehrik Nifaz-i-Shariat-i-Mohammadi, Sufi Mohammad, was ever qualified to convince the militants to lay down their arms in return for the introduction of the new regulations. They say that it was at the insistence of the Awami National Party (ANP) and, later, on a consensus in the political circles that led them to an ‘operational pause’ in the strikes against the Taliban.
But, clearly, that operational pause is now over. And a third phase of the military operation is in full swing
The army high command, acutely aware of the public perception of them playing ducks and drakes with opportunities to root out the Taliban, claims that the goal of the operation is very clear: kill the Taliban and wrest this slice of Pakistan’s territory back from their control. But the eventual success of the plan might hinge on factors beyond the control of the army.
These factors include, first and foremost, the speed at which the ground offensive is making headway. If the initial movement is tardy and the troops are pinned down in long drawn-out guerilla battles by the miscreants, demoralisation and despair might set in early. An accompanying factor is the elimination of the Taliban’s organisational ability. Since they are not an organised force, smashing the heart of the resistance is critical for early success, and also, for sending out the message to all that the army means business.
Just as central to the success of the operation is the handling of the displaced persons and eventually their speedy rehabilitation into the areas that have been cleared of the Taliban. Long queues of wailing women, battered children and angry men might fill up TV footage and change the direction of the wind of public consensus in favour of the military operation that is so necessary for completing it successfully. No less significant is the role of the political leadership, whose visibility and interest in leading the military operation from the front will be decisive in making this effort a national endeavour rather than a mere military enterprise.
Leadership, both provincial and central, will also have to move on the front of development, reconstruction, and reinforcement of the civilian writ in the areas from which the Taliban have been uprooted. Successful military operations often collapse in the second phase of consolidation, which is the job of civil authorities.
Also, the backlash from the militants, in the shape of multiple suicide attacks in Pakistan’s urban centres, has already started to take place. This too, can dent national consensus on the usefulness of the operations, particularly at a time when parties like the JI are already positioning themselves to exploit the rising costs of the operation to their advantage. Military sources, however, claim that they have taken special measures to minimise such dangers.
The state of the country’s other provinces will also affect the success of the operation. Trouble in Balochistan or Karachi plunging into ethnic carnage can be a fatal distraction that needs to be guarded against. And finally, while global support — funding, essentially — is crucial, excessive endorsement from Washington can backfire in a country where US motives are looked at with deep suspicion — and also for good reason.
The military high command has set the benchmark of success rather high in this operation: that at the end of it, the people of Swat should be blessing them rather than cursing them. In this effort, they need as much sustained cooperation from the political leadership as they do from a powerful media that, in more ways than one, can decisively shape public mood in the days ahead.
The writer is former executive editor of The News and a senior journalist with Geo TV hosting a prime time current affairs program.