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Army close to winding up first phase of operation

Posted by yourpakistan on November 6, 2009


The Army is winding up the first phase of Operation Rah-i-Nijat by this weekend by capturing all major towns and villages in the Taliban heartland of South Waziristan, senior military officials said. The lightning speed with which the military has been able to seize major towns and villages, taking over Sherwangi, Kotkai, Kaniguram and Sararogha and secure main supply routes in the embattled tribal region has taken many an analyst, and even some military planners, by surprise.

The security forces are already inside Makin from the Razmak access but the area is said to be infested with minefields and will take some time before it is declared safe. In 20 days since the launch of the operation on the night of October 16, the military is now poised to march into Mehsuds’ regional headquarters of Laddah.

 

The fall of Laddah will mark the end of the first phase of the operation into the mountainous Mehsud territory.

This will mean a huge reversal for the militants who had over-run paramilitary security forces’ forts, beaten back two military operations in the past and turned South Waziristan into the epicentre and birthplace of Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan.

The second phase
The second phase that will include consolidation and clearance will take the military deeper into the Mehsud heartland, into valleys and small hamlets.

This phase will also be used to bring the political administration back into an area that hitherto was off-limit for them to make damage assessment and begin to take charge of the civil affairs.

Already, the military has begun repair work on the Shakai-Kaniguram road, while the administration has undertaken the reconstruction of Jandola-Sararogha road.

The roads have been in a shambles and no repair work could be undertaken in the area since it plunged into militancy and the state authority ceased to exist and exercise its control.

Work has also begun on restoring power transmission line, in the same speed with which the military moved in.

Officials in the Fata administration say they need Rs3.8 billion to carry out the early recovery and reconstruction work in the Mehsud territory, and a security official says Rs2.5 billion has already been placed at their disposal.

Fata administration officials say they plan to complete the major repair work, restore civic amenities and re-establish political administration in the embattled zone by April next year.

‘The Mehsuds usually migrate to Tank and Dera Ismail Khan to avoid harsh winter and return home after spring. So we have time between now and until then to complete civil and administrative work,’ a senior official in the Fata Secretariat said.

The fall of the Taliban heartland
But while the government moves in right earnest to restore its writ in the territory, there are speculations and questions galore as to what happened to the almost legendary and much-hyped Taliban resistance in the area.

Military officials now acknowledge that after putting up stiff resistance in the initial phase of the operation, the militants’ resolve to fend off attacks simply collapsed.

Not surprisingly, therefore, the military casualties have been minimal with 40 dead and 71 wounded, in what was widely billed as the mother of all battles.

Based on intercepts and other intelligence reports, the military puts the militants’ casualty figure at close to 500 dead and 786 wounded.

‘We have broken the myth of Taliban’s invincibility and we have also broken the myth that South Waziristan is a no-go area,’ a senior military officer said.

The fighting has been tough, at least in some areas, but several factors led to the military’s relatively smooth and trouble-free march into the territory.

Military officials offer various reasons for the near-successful operation so far. Chief among them was a replication of a Taliban tactic, military officials say.

The Taliban had fortified their positions and heavily mined the major access routes into South Waziristan, hoping the military, like the past, would push ahead through the main roads.

It didn’t happen. Instead, the military infantry walked through the mountains, taking over ridges and commanding features before moving down to enter a built-up area.

‘We have beaten them at their own tactic. This has been the classic Mehsud tactic, encircling and ambushing the enemy from the ridges and commanding features and we did the same to them. They were not prepared for this,’ one official commented.

The sheer preponderance of soldiers, unlike the past half-hearted limited-scale operations which were easily beaten, also seems to have overawed the Taliban, military officials say.

Air Action
But one of the most significant contributions perhaps, came from the Pakistan Air Force and Army’s Aviation Wing with its attack helicopters.

The PAF with advanced technology not only targeted the enemy positions with precision but also provided enhanced and high resolution images to the ground forces.

‘Necessity is the mother of all inventions,’ a senior security official remarked. ‘For nearly four months, the PAF worked hard to try and conform to our needs,’ the official said.

Video feed from its planes and unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) and their night capabilities to search and attack targets came as a big surprise to the Taliban fighters.

‘The Taliban assertion based on their knowledge of the local area that the night belongs to them suddenly became irrelevant. They are no longer able to mount night attacks,’ the official said.

As the incessant precision attacks hit the hardcore militants hard, the peripheral elements appeared to dither and fade away. Even the widely acclaimed tough Uzbek fighters are reported to have relocated to North Waziristan, security officials said.

What probably made the military’s job easier was the evacuation of Mehsud civilians to Tank and Dera Ismail Khan. Political administration officials say almost 99 per cent of the Mehsud population left the area due to three months of crippling economic blockade and impending military operation.

Another crucial factor was the decision by the Ahmadzai Wazir militant commander Maulvi Nazir in Wana and Hafiz Gul Bahadar to stay neutral and not join the fight.

‘It took us four months to shape up the environment for the military operation,’ the senior military official said.

The Taliban say they have made a tactical retreat to avoid civilian casualties, but officials maintain that a retreating enemy does not leave behind their ammunition and weapons.

‘When somebody retreats, he takes his weapon to fight another day. He does not flee and abandon his weapons. What has happened is that they have left behind huge cache of arms and ammunition.’

The third phase:
But challenges remain. The anticipated Mehsud uprising with the launch of the military operation against the Taliban has not come, largely due to past bitter experiences with half-hearted and half-backed operations.

‘To be honest, we didn’t expect them to rise against the militants so early in the operation. There is a trust deficit. They want to be sure that the military will not abandon like the past and we don’t want to push them,’ an official acknowledged.

But the political administration official in South Waziristan’s regional headquarters of Wana said the Mehsuds had begun showing signs of supporting the government against the Taliban.

‘We have assured them that the military will stay and the paramilitary force would return in addition to levy force to assuage their fears and give them a sense of security,’ he said.

The Mehsuds are weary that with the leadership intact, the Taliban may stage a comeback and make life difficult.

There is also a debate and consensus within official circles to relocate Mehsuds’ regional headquarters from Laddah to Makin.

Makin —a plain area and commercial hub of the Mehsuds —is close to Razmak, is easily defendable and sits on the Y-junction between Sararogha and Wana.

There is also a consensus to create more administrative tehsils to increase official presence and make the Mehsud territory more governable.

The divisive issue, however, is the bifurcation of South Waziristan into two separate administrative regions —the Wazir and Mehsud tribal regions.

Some officials argue that the construction of Gomal Zam Road to allow unhindered access to Ahmadzai Wazir, by-passing the Mehsud territory, and create a separate Wazir tribal agency would end Mehsuds’ nuisance value once and for all.

The Mehsuds have been opposed to such a drastic measure for obvious reasons. This will allow access to the Afghanistan via the Wazir territory for trade. Therefore, such a step now will create more acrimony than bring them back into the mainstream.

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