The fighting in Pakistani Waziristan, against hundreds of local tribesmen and al Qaeda gunmen thought to be protecting al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, continues. Troops have formed a cordon ten kilometers by five kilometers around the area where 300-400 al Qaeda fighters are dug in. At least half of the enemy troops are local tribesmen who back the al Qaeda cause (or are just on the payroll). The al Qaeda troops are in at least one fortress, while others are fighting from caves. It is feared that the caves may be part of a network that extends deeper into Pakistan, or back into Afghanistan. This may just be a local legend, but large underground cave complexes do exist in the region. The operation is reminiscent of the fighting in the Afghan Tora Bora region in late 2001. In that action, al Qaeda fighters bribed their way past the local Afghans hired by American troops to help with cordoning off the area.
There are several reasons to believe the battle is all about protecting al-Zawahiri. One of the captured fighters, an Egyptian, said al-Zawahiri was there, and was wounded early in the fighting. Also, al-Zawahiri was known to operate in inhabited areas because he was the guy who actually ran al Qaeda and constantly met with people. Bin Laden, who is more of a figurehead and fund raiser, is usually kept in a more remote hideout. Also, there had been earlier reports that al-Zawahiri was in the area, and the size and tenacity of the al Qaeda fighters indicates that they are protecting someone very valuable. Even the local tribesmen fighting for al Qaeda are doing so in an uncharacteristically ferocious way. Several local government officials have been taken hostage by the al Qaeda fighters, which is one reason why air strikes have not been called in. The Americans want to take al-Zawahiri alive, but the Pakistanis are more concerned with protecting their own people.
The Pakistani forces fighting the Waziristan battle have greatly increased in the last few days, and appear to be nearly a division's worth (over 10,000) in the area. Most of the troops are paramilitary forces and tribal militias. More regular Pakistani army troops are being brought in to help out, and help prevent any al Qaeda escaping via a bribe. Some Pakistani commanders, however, fear that al-Zawahiri may already have escaped, with his bodyguard ordered to fight on for a few days to keep the Pakistani troops busy. More pro-al Qaeda tribesmen have been able to get through the cordon and join the fight in the past few days. There have been some known, and failed, attempts to get out through the cordon. But the way wars are fought in this part of the world, a bribe is as acceptable as a brisk exchange of gunfire. Actually, a bribe is preferred.
Task Force 121 troops are operating twenty kilometers away from all this, on the Afghan side of the border, and have rounded up some Taliban members who are fleeing the fighting. Some 30,000 local civilians have fled the Waziristan battle area so far, and some of these refugees are thought to be al Qaeda. The U.S. does have a noticeable (unofficial and discreet) CIA presence in the border region of Pakistan. The CIA team probably contains men from Task Force 121. The Americans supply the Pakistanis with information being collected by American aircraft, UAVs and satellites overhead, as well as some ground based sensor systems. Task Force 121 is able to come into the battle area, but are staying out because the Pakistanis really, really want to do this themselves. Pakistani president Musharraf cannot ignore these attitudes by his army. As a former head of the army, Musharraf knows that he has many enemies (mainly Islamic radicals) in uniform. Musharraf has to be constantly on his guard for assassination and coup attempts. Moreover, fighting al Qaeda is unpopular with many Pakistanis who back Islamic radical goals.
About 30 Pakistani troops have been killed so far, and a larger number of enemy fighters have also died (if only because the Pakistanis have so much more firepower.) The longer this fighting, which began on March 16th, goes on, the more likely al-Zawahiri, or other Taliban and al Qaeda leaders get away.