North Waziristan poses a formidable challenge

PESHAWAR ( –  A steady escalation in attacks on security forces in South Waziristan and Mehsud tribesmen’s reluctance to return home has thrown up a formidable challenge to the government to deal with militant leaders in neighbouring North Waziristan Agency — the real bastion of Tehrik-i-Taliban.

Casualties have been mounting in South Waziristan. Since the beginning of this month, roadside bombings, ambushes and raids by militants affiliated with Hakeemullah Mehsud now ensconced in North Waziristan, have inflicted rising losses on the security forces. Now the military is back to the drawing board in search of new options.

Since the launch of Operation Rah-i-Nejat (Path to Deliverance) on Oct 16, the military has lost close to 200 men — on an average 25 men a month. Another six hundred have been wounded.

There has been a gradual fall in casualty figures since the launch of the operation last winter, but what could become a source of alarm and anxiety for the military is the steady rise in casualties from roadside bombings, ambushes and raids from militants operating from North Waziristan.

Majority of these attacks inside South Waziristan have come from North Waziristan, which is serving as a new home and base to the TTP leadership and its hordes of fighters, government officials say.

“The casualty figure is still not cost-prohibitive,” a government official said. “It may become untenable if the casualty figure continues to rise and touches the four digit mark.”

How do things stand in South Waziristan?

The military says it has direct control over 75 per cent of the approximately 2,419 square kilometres of Mehsud territory in South Waziristan, which includes major towns, roads and communication networks.

The military has an indirect control and influence in the remaining 25 per cent peripheral area which, officials say, provide space to militants to sneak back into the territory and carry out attacks.

“There has been an increase in attacks,” military spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas said. “When the force is overstretched and operating in a forested countryside, you come under attack.”

With a limited operation in Shawal area last month, the military has pretty much completed major combat operations.

“The next phase is likely to be more of a search and cordon operations” is how one official put it.

THE MEHSUD CONUNDRUM: Despite the military’s overwhelming presence, Mehsud tribes have shown little inclination in returning home.

Their return, which was scheduled to start on April 15, could not take place despite prodding and pressure tactics by the administration, including the stoppage of cash assistance from March 31.

The Mehsud tribes have agreed, albeit grudgingly, after a lot of cajoling and behind-the-scene arm-twisting, to return home.

But they have made it clear that while they would take full responsibility for the populated area (under direct army control), they would not be in a position to discharge their territorial responsibility in peripheral area (where the army has indirect control and has been the source of major trouble).

“Fear of the return of TTP leaders, the likes of Hakeemullah and Qari Hussain, still haunt them. They fear that the TTP will catch up with them in their own villages,” an official said.

There is no way you can allay their apprehensions as long as the TTP leadership is alive and kicking, the official said.

This is despite assurances by the administration that the military would continue to stay in South Waziristan to protect the Mehsuds from militant attacks.

“Somehow we have not been able to give them the confidence they need,” acknowledged a senior government official.

To add further to their woes, the TTP leaders have warned fellow Mehsud tribesmen against returning to their soil to avoid being trapped in the cross-fire.

The result: Mehsudtribal elders are not only reluctant to play ball by assuming collective tribal responsibility but have also failed to hand over 392 tribal militants, including TTP leaders.

Government officials now acknowledge it would take longer than they had anticipated in bringing the operation to a successful close.

The repatriation is now expected to start from middle of next month, only if and when the administration and the Mehsudtribal chiefs reach an agreement on modalities, yet to be worked out.

Some circles within the government are even willing to call the Mahsuds’ bluff.

“If they are not going, then they are not going. We have the patience,” the government official said.

“The whole premise of their tribal system is based on collective responsibility and if they say that they are not capable of doing that, we might as well consider changing the administrative system. What is the fun in continuing with a system that is not delivering,” he argued.

Officials also grumble over the role of some present and former parliamentarians from the volatile region, for pre-empting Mehsudtribal elders from reaching an agreement with the administration – a charge they vehemently deny.

“They want to drag the situation to a point where the government is compelled to agree to some sort of coexistence with the militants to perpetuate their political relevance,” an official remarked.

“They are political wrestlers whose influence will have to be decisively neutralised.”

MANAGING THE CONUNDRUM: There is a near consensus within the civil and military establishment over the source of problem: North Waziristan.

“Eighty to ninety per cent of the trouble in South Waziristan is because of the presence of militant leadership and their uninterrupted ability to infiltrate and conduct attacks from North Waziristan,” the official said.

“The source of the problem is in North Waziristan and it will have to be addressed,” the official said.

North Waziristan is fast becoming a whole new dilemma for Islamabad and Rawalpindi, which have so far successfully resisted pressure from Washington to launch a full-scale operation in the militant-infested region.

The government, which had entered into an understanding with the top militant commander Hafiz Gul Bahadar to stay neutral and not side with the TTP in the military operation in South Waziristan, has now begun to doubt his ability to rein in the new guests from the neighboring tribal region.

Indeed, government officials believe, that the TTP chief enjoys more muscle and support in North Waziristan.

Also, efforts by the political administration in the regional headquarters of Miramshah to pressure the Utmanzai and Dawar Wazirs to lean on Hafiz Gul Bahadar to expel the TTP from the area have had no headway.

The TTP has been driven from its stronghold of South Waziristan, but officials acknowledge that its ability to plot and organise attacks in Pakistan remains intact.

“The attacks are fewer in number but bigger in impact,” a law enforcement official said. “They are recuperating from the initial shock. Their nexus with the Punjabi Taliban has given them greater outreach,” the official said.

“We already have our plate full,” Maj-Gen Athar Abbas, the ISPR chief, said. “To open another front of the scale of Swat and South Waziristan requires considerable resources. It will take time and will have to wait,” he said.

“The availability or non-availability of resources is our issue number one and then we cannot afford to set off a new crisis of internally displaced people from North Waziristan, while we still have over three hundred thousand Mahsuds to look after.

“Till resources are made available, we will have to manage North Waziristan,” the official said.

Nevertheless, government officials say they continue to evaluate and assess the situation on an almost daily basis.

Any escalation in attacks both within the tribal region and down country, they warn, may tip the balance in favour of an early military action. “This summer is going to be very, very hot for all stakeholders,” the senior official said.

source : revolution muslim


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