Few things have captured American imagination in the war on terror like the idea of soldiers chasing terrorists in the mountainous "tribal areas" near Pakistan's border with Afghanistan. However, US media coverage of the Pakistani operations has been clichd and superficial. Analysis reveals that the performance of Pakistani troops against small bands of foreign and tribal fighters has produced mixed results.
Pakistan has seven federally administered tribal areas, six of which span about 20 percent of Pakistan's 2,250 kilometers long border with Afghanistan. The Southern most tribal zone of South Waziristan has been in the news of late, but Al Qaeda activity has also been reported in North Waziristan as well as Khurram and Khyber, which are on the other side of the now infamous Tora Bora complex in Afghanistan. The tribal zones seem to be more of an Al Qaeda base as opposed to the Taliban, who seem to be based further south in Pakistan's Baluchistan province. Since 2002, there are reportedly anywhere between 600 and 1,500 foreign al Qaeda fighters in and around South Waziristan, made up of Uzbeks, Chechens and Arabs. Also in the mix were a few hundred well trained local tribals, loyal to the Taliban, who had been sheltering the foreign Islamic radicals. Both reportedly enjoy wide support among the Waziri and Mehsud tribal populace of the two Waziristans, estimated to number some 750,000.
After a lot of pressure from the US, Pakistan decided to target militant bases in South Waziristan. Under the overall command of the Peshawar based XI Corps of the Pakistan Army (PA), the paramilitary Frontier Corps (FC) was first sent into the region in March 2004. The initial push was aimed at a militant strong hold at Kaloosha village just outside Wana, the provincial capital of South Waziristan and minutes from a major Pakistan army base. Some 2,000 FC troops belonging to the South Waziristan Scouts (SWS) were sent on a probing raid. It was a disaster. The militants, backed up by tribals, estimated to be around 200, were able to corner the SWS in a classic guerilla trap. The army quickly moved a regular army brigade, Special Service Group (SSG) commandos with Artillery and AH-1 Cobra helicopter support, to rescue the trapped SWS men. When the smoke cleared the militants were found to have escaped with a dozen army hostages (some of whom were later executed). Western reports said that the PA lost some 150 men in the Kaloosha debacle, while managing to eliminate some 25 rebels most of whom appeared to be locals.
Immediately following this, the al Qaeda fighters began employing the other standard guerilla tactic of harassing the supply lines and chipping away the troop morale. Recently, the media obtained Al Qaeda propaganda videos from 2004 showing al Qaeda gunmen successfully attacking PA and FC convoys by employing direct fire as well as land mines and Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). To add to the problem, there were credible reports of PA soldiers, up to the level of Colonel, refusing to fight their "brethren" and some FC men even switching sides when challenged by the rebels. Faced with plummeting morale and a disciplinary crisis, the Pakistani army sued for peace, resulting in a pact between the PA and the tribal Al Qaeda commander Nek Mohammed on April 24, 2004.
The deal did not last but a few hours. Nek told reporters that that the deal was unconditional while Hussain insisted that the deal was contingent on Nek handing over his foreign "guests." US forces across the border were not pleased at this development since the deal did not result in the lowering of cross-border forays by the jihadists. On June 18, 2004, Nek Mohammed was killed by a Hellfire missile fired by a predator drone, even though the PA took credit for the operation. Soon after Nek's death, another fighter with a nom-de-guerre Abdullah Mehsud took charge of the rebels. Abdullah, who had lost one leg many years ago, belonged to the more numerous Mehsud tribe, while Nek was from the Waziri tribe. This indicated that the tribal rebellion was now spreading across tribes.
Meanwhile, PA began relying on air support and real time intelligence from US electronic eavesdropping. Pakistani helicopter pilots began taking night-training lessons from US forces. On September 9, 2004, Pakistan air force jets bombed a tribal compound supposedly hosting senior rebels and foreign fighters at Dila Khula, 24 kilometers northeast of Wana. While the PA spokesman claimed that some 100 terrorists were killed, independent journalists noted that most of the killed were tribal bystanders who stopped by to see the result of the first strike and were killed in the following raid. A month later, Abdullah Mehsud's men kidnapped two Chinese engineers who were working on a dam project. Six days later SSG commandos launched an operation to rescue the two hostages, but one captive was killed in the process along with all five captors. Embarrassed by this, the PA launched yet another operation to capture or kill Abdullah. This time around, the US trained Special Operations Task Force (SOTF) based on heli-borne soldiers was used. However, after four frustrating months of chasing ghosts, the operation was called off.
On February 8, 2005, the PA signed yet another "peace" accord, this time with the Mehsud fighters, granting them pardon in return for an end to their attacks on Pakistani forces. While the PA claimed that this deal was solely with the good Mehsud commanders, meant to isolate Abdullah, the pardoned Mehsud commanders still pledged loyalty to Abdullah and would not commit stop attacking US forces across the border. Further, this deal included a payoff to the tribal commanders to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars, which they said they owed to Al Qaeda. As of May 28, 2005, Abdullah is free, although the PA claims that all al Qaeda were gone from South Waziristan, even as reports of attacks trickle in from the region. Interestingly enough, there are now reports that the PA is conducting secret operations in the adjoining North Waziristan area. It will be a while before we see the results of those operations are known. -- Kaushik Kapisthalam