Compared to what awaits the Pakistan Army in Waziristan, the Swat operation was a skirmish.

What lies in Waziristan
Monday, August 31, 2009
Zafar Hilaly

Compared to what awaits the Pakistan Army in Waziristan, the Swat operation was a skirmish. There 30,000 Taliban wait to give battle. As fighters, they are matchless and have few equals in the art of mobile warfare. Their fanaticism, ruthlessness, ability to withstand huge losses conjoined with their familiarity of terrain, and mastery of the tactics and weapons of guerrilla warfare make them a formidable enemy.

It is a small wonder that the Pakistan Army is apprehensive about taking on the Taliban in Waziristan until all preparations have been made. It is equally wondrous that the Americans, having had the bitter experience of charging into situations, ill-prepared to deal with them, would have the Pakistan Army rush in where, what to speak of fools, even angels fear to tread.

The Army should take its time. All preparations should be made; every strategy examined and re-examined and all possible forces mustered. The possibility of defeat should be eliminated. The Taliban are going nowhere; nor are we, unlike the Americans. Nor do we have a time-line to meet, like Obama, if his party is to stand a chance in the mid-term Congressional elections in 2010. The American idea that the current divisions within the Taliban should be exploited by a quick push is just wishful thinking. Nothing will unite the Taliban more than danger from an outside force. Till then, they will squabble and even kill each other periodically just as surely as they will come together when the call for battle is made. History, rather than military text books, is a better guide when it comes to devising strategy or predicting the behaviour of the Masud Taliban.

The stakes are high, inestimably so. Victory and the pacification of the tribal areas will end for a generation, if not more, any meaningful challenge to the authority of the state from extremists, irredentists and Kabul provided if success on the battlefield is followed by investment in education, job opportunities, political empowerment and the provision of speedy justice. Such steps will detoxify the tribal areas of the extremist poison that they presently exude. On the other hand, defeat will metamorphose the extremist cancer. Its growth will be exponentially rapid and assuredly end all prospects of Pakistan becoming what most strive for, a democratic, modern, progressive and tolerant Islamic polity.

There are many who feel that such a battle is needless, just as they stubbornly insist that Swat was unnecessary or indeed any operation targeting fellow Muslims unwarranted. And that peace can be achieved through arrangements and understandings reached as a result of parleys at jirgas and by prayers, homilies, appeals to Islamic solidarity, etc. They are equally wrong in thinking that battle can be avoided as the Americans are in rushing into it. They misread the adversary and his intentions.

The Taliban are no longer the well meaning, albeit naïve, rustic fundamentalists or the popular expression of Pashtun nationalism in Afghanistan. Their nature, character and goals have evolved considerably over the past decade. They are not any more mere tribals rebelling against foreign occupation, poor governance, savage repression, persecution, militarism and endemic corruption. If that were so, theirs would be a common struggle. Their credo and motives are different. They now believe that “The Kingdom of God is not in word, but in power” (1 Corinthians 4:20). They view themselves as God’s agents, the true inheritor’s of the Prophet’s (PBUH) mantle. Their mission, along with that of their ally Al Qaeda, is to cleanse the ummah and then humanity, beginning with Afghanistan and Pakistan, of imperfections by force and wanton killing, if necessary, and by guile, lies or any stratagem that works. In other words, for them the end justifies the means — any means. None of which, of course, would make them as rare a historical phenomena as they appear. What gives them this status is the extent of their following, the viciousness of their tactics and insistence that their law is His; and hence opposing them is akin to waging war on Him.

The Taliban/Al Qaeda combine have been spurred on by the disastrous performance of the regime in Kabul and because Karzai has acted like a degenerate Durrani aristocrat rather than a genuine reformist. By befriending war lords and drug barons, partaking of loot while failing to provide his wretched fellow citizens with basic amenities or a semblance of security, what to speak of justice, Karzai has immeasurably strengthened the appeal of the Taliban.

No less an encouragement for the Taliban has been the disarray of policy, thought and tactics of the Americans. They do not seem to know what they want or how to go about achieving their goals. They profess a desire to negotiate with the Taliban but fight shy of approaching them with a plan in hand. They wish to prevail over the enemy but are unwilling to commit the forces or accept the casualties that may enable them to win. They promised to deliver basic amenities, allocated vast sums, raised expectations but failed miserably to live up to the hype they generated. They swore to fight corruption and improve governance but turned a blind eye to acts of gross corruption at all levels of government and ended up being accused of colluding with the likes of Fahim and Dostum who are not only corrupt but have overtaken corruption. They proclaimed their desire to end poppy cultivation but passively surveyed vast plains of poppy fields from their armed redoubts. And while America did know why she was in Afghanistan, her leaders have no idea whether to stay or when to leave.

If Bush was incompetent and a dissembler, Obama’s mediocrity is concealed behind the majesty of his language. America, alas, is being set up for a fall by her own gaffes and miscalculations rather than the shrewdness of her adversary. If the truth be told, America cannot match the challenge that Afghanistan poses.

Pakistan should not be distracted by the real possibility of an American denouement in Afghanistan. Our course is clear, so is our objective. We wish to reclaim our territories and their population that have been lost to the Taliban. Admittedly, recapturing Waziristan will be a prolonged and deadly affair. The repercussions will impact all aspects of Pakistani life and the economy. Terrorism may touch every home in Pakistan by the time it ends. But that the attempt has to be made and Pakistan saved is beyond question. We cannot parley a shameful peace with a medieval order led by deluded warrior Muslim monks. Appeasement of the Taliban has never worked; nor will hand-wringing and blaming America suffice. Far from dousing the current flames of war, appeasement will ignite a firestorm as bigots, encouraged by signs of weakness and irresolution, step up their drive for the control of Pakistan. “Fight them,” is what polls say Pakistanis want, which is just as well because a more sinister chant emanating from a terrified world is what we will hear if we do not, or if we lose. Already a dim refrain of that is audible as India, Israel, America and the western alliance ponder plans to avert the Armageddon.

Once again, the Pakistan Army is being called upon to deliver this country from the hands of those who wish to impose their way of life on us. This time, the numerical odds may favour the army but the terrain and ferocity of the enemy makes up in spades for the adversary’s inferior numbers. Waziristan is a completely different war and the Taliban/Al Qaeda combine a vastly contrasting foe to the adversary our forces have been trained and equipped to fight. The outcome will depend not only on the bravery of our forces but also crucially on their resourcefulness and their battlefield skills. On the outcome will hinge the fate of Pakistan and perhaps beyond.

The writer is a former ambassador. Email: