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Waziristan a tough nut for Pakistani forces

Washington has called Waziristan the most dangerous place on Earth. Former Pakistani general Ali Muhammad Jan Aurakzai knows why.

Aurakzai led troops against Taliban militants in the Pakistani region from 2001 to ’04, confronting a ferocious enemy able to ambush and then suddenly disappear down goat paths or melt away into warrens of mud-hut villages.

Two major military offensives in recent years failed to rub them out. And now, as Pakistani generals brace again for war in South Waziristan, the Taliban militants there are tougher and greater in number than their brethren on the run from the military in the country’s volatile Swat Valley, Aurakzai and other former Pakistani generals say.

“They’re swift on their feet, and have that hawkish eye to see opponents in the thick of battle, pounce and then withdraw,” he said. “Waziristan will be a tough battle, no doubt about it.”

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Waziristan’s desolate pla- teaus, caves and roadless basins provide an ideal battlefield for guerrilla fighters like the Taliban -- and a no man’s land for a conventional force like Pakistan’s military, which relies on helicopter gunships, fighter jets and heavy artillery. Military convoys moving along the few roads in Waziristan are likely to be easy targets for ambushes from surrounding hillsides.

“Waziristan is a different ballgame than Swat,” Aurakzai said. “When I took an army there, the area was completely inaccessible. And the militants know all the secret routes and caves where they can hide.”

Military leaders have not said when a full-scale offensive will begin. However, even as the two-month offensive in the Swat Valley continued to rage, fighter jets began pounding Taliban hide-outs in Waziristan, and government leaders declared that crushing the Taliban in the semiautonomous region along the Afghan border, and its leader, Baitullah Mahsud, was the next objective.

Mahsud, whose tribe is dominant in South Waziristan, has been accused of masterminding the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and engineering dozens of suicide bombings in cities and villages. Analysts say he has about 20,000 militants at his command, a much larger contingent than the 4,000 fighters believed to be loyal to Swat Taliban leader Maulana Qazi Fazlullah.

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The government has begun to return refugees to their homes in Swat, declaring most of the region cleared of Taliban fighters. The job in Waziristan, analysts say, is likely to take much more time. Mahsud has amassed the support of Waziristan’s tribes and eliminated elders who opposed him. His foot soldiers, says Talat Masood, a military analyst and retired Pakistani general, “are far more experienced in guerrilla fighting than the people in Swat.”

The Taliban in Waziristan enjoys a degree of backing among the local tribes “largely because the state has more or less abandoned the locals,” Masood said. “That has allowed the Taliban to strengthen itself there. And there’s always the factor of tribal loyalty, which dominates the Waziristan society.”

Taliban militants in Waziristan have another edge that those in Swat lack: Al Qaeda bases and hide-outs dot the rugged Waziristan landscape, providing Taliban commanders with arms, cash, training, hardened foreign fighters and suicide bombers, Masood said.

The military strategy in South Waziristan has thus far mostly avoided direct fighting. Government troops have cordoned off the region to deprive Mahsud of access to arms and supplies, and Pakistani fighter jets and helicopter gunships have been striking targets believed to be hide-outs and training camps.

U.S. drone aircraft have also increasingly targeted suspected hide-outs. Publicly, Pakistani leaders continue to denounce those attacks as violations of their country’s sovereignty, though it is widely believed that Islamabad tacitly allows the drone strikes to continue.

Some experts say Pakistan’s strategy of choking off Taliban supply routes and relying on airstrikes may be more effective than having ground troops directly confront the enemy.

However, a reliance on aerial bombardment generally results in heavy civilian casualties and property damage, an outcome that could turn peaceful tribal groups in Waziristan against the government. And it means Pakistani society probably will have to hunker down for a long, drawn-out conflict.

“It won’t be overnight,” said Khalid Aziz, a defense analyst and former chief secretary of the North-West Frontier Province, which oversees Waziristan and the rest of the tribal areas. “It’ll take five, six or even seven years.”

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And there’s no guarantee such a strategy will work. The U.S. found that out in Afghanistan, where a reliance on airstrikes against the Taliban resulted in a rising tide of civilian deaths. Washington has since shifted tactics, opting to rely on a counterinsurgency approach that sends in ground troops to clear a region of Taliban, and then continue to hold it.

Pakistani military leaders say they are limiting their current operations in the tribal areas to South Waziristan, where their primary aim is to eliminate Mahsud and his ranks. However, the conflict zone may widen if Hafiz Gul Bahadur, a Taliban leader in North Waziristan, follows through with his threat to join forces with Mahsud to fight the troops.

Bahadur had been abiding by a peace deal he reached with the government, but in late June he said he was scrapping the pact because of stepped-up U.S. drone attacks in Waziristan. On June 28, militants loyal to Bahadur attacked a military convoy, killing 16 soldiers.

“Adding North Waziristan makes the conflict zone much larger for the army to control, unless you seal the border,” said Ayaz Wazir, an analyst and Wazir tribal elder. “That’s something I’m afraid they cannot do.”

Military offensives in Waziristan in 2003 and ’04 sputtered. The operations were followed by cease-fires that let Taliban militants regroup and consolidate their authority in the region, analysts say. Under former President Pervez Musharraf, the government never followed up with development projects and infrastructure improvements to jump-start the local economy.

“They came in, occupied places, but left it without completing the mission,” Masood said. “In a matter of months, the Taliban had come back.”

Analysts warn that the Taliban in Waziristan may use a common guerrilla strategy for battling a larger, conventional force: rely on ambushes and avoid direct confrontations, wait until the invading army declares victory and pulls back, and then reassert control.

“It’s like running after beehives,” analyst Aziz said. “You attack one, they bite you and then disappear and form somewhere else. And you keep on going after beehives.”

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alex.rodriguez@latimes.com


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