THE issue of collaborative military offensives by Pakistan and Nato forces is a contentious one, and there is a need to assess whether or not such attempts would be productive.
In this context, the killing of Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan’s (TTP) Bajaur chief Mullah Dadullah in a Nato missile strike in Afghanistan’s Kunar province provides a starting point for discussion.
US and Nato forces killed Mullah Dadullah along with 11 other militants last month in Predator attacks on a hideout in Kunar. Reports suggested that the militants’ commander was returning after carrying out attacks on Pakistani forces and tribal lashkars in Bajaur Agency inside Pakistan.
Dadullah had replaced Faqir Muhammad as TTP head in Bajaur and was one of the highest-ranking TTP leaders outside the Waziristan area. His name as top TTP commander first surfaced last September when he kidnapped 30 students on a trip celebrating Eid.
The attack on Dadullah was the first-ever air strike on Pakistani militants’ hideouts inside Afghanistan by US forces. The development followed the statement by US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta that the US would now go after the TTP — presumably, in return, the Pakistan military would deny the Haqqani network the use of North Waziristan as a base for attacks on Afghanistan.
The killing of the TTP commander along with his colleagues involved in cross-border attacks on Pakistani citizens and forces gave the impression that the US and Pakistan had successfully entered into an agreement to cooperate on handling cross-border infiltrations.
It was a significant development, assuring the sceptical Pakistani military and political leadership that the US and the international coalition in Afghanistan would no longer allow Pakistani militants the use of Afghan soil to launch ground attacks on Pakistani interests. And that in return, Pakistan would concentrate on neutralising the Haqqani network and its local collaborator, the TTP, in North Waziristan.
However, what was believed to be US-Pakistan cooperation on quelling cross-border insurgency is fast turning out to be a fallacy.
Emboldened by the killing of the TTP leader by the US inside Afghanistan, the Pakistan military dispatched a small number of troops to the Batwar region in the Bajaur border areas to help local tribal lashkars tackle the intruding militants.
Unaware of the US and Nato inaction or the strength of the militants, security forces here were not prepared for the tough resistance that was put up and suffered heavy losses including the capture of some 20 troops later beheaded by the militants.
Local sources say that the militants, after engaging the security forces for some time, were joined by hundreds of militants, under Mullah Fazlullah, who had gone across the border, and there are reports that the infiltration was supported by Afghan border security forces.
The strength of the militants can be gauged from their level of resistance. Instead of employing their usual hit-and-run attacks, the intruding militants resorted to fighting a pitched battle in the vast valley of Batwar keeping Pakistan’s regular forces and tribal lashkars engaged for three weeks. Both sides suffered heavy casualties.
Had the US forces intervened and discouraged reinforcements, the Pakistani security forces would have easily handled the Bajaur-based militants. A great opportunity of creating goodwill for the US was lost in Pakistan.
While the military suffered heavy casualties in finally clearing Batwar and its adjoining areas from the militants, it was a worthy cause as taking Batwar from the militants can prove to have a significant impact on the frequency and intensity of cross-border attacks.
The military in earlier offensives in Bajaur had steamrolled the militants’ hideouts and private properties, flushing out the fighters from the main population centres and chasing them to border areas and into Afghanistan.
Batwar is located on the Pak-Afghan border in the midst of high mountains and densely forested valleys. Militants had occupied the valley and mountains tops and started FM radio transmissions covering almost the entire Bajaur Agency, which is noteworthy for having safe passages and routes to the bordering Dir, Malakand and Mohmand districts in Pakistan and Kunar in Afghanistan.
Demographically, tribesmen from Bajaur are present in the population of all settled districts of the Peshawar valley and the main cities of Punjab and Sindh — another advantage for militants trying to penetrate deep into the country. Securing Bajaur up to the border was crucial for the Pakistan Army in order to deny militants easy routes to the settled districts.
Hard lessons, however, have been learnt from the offensives one of them being not to take for granted help from across the border. The attitude of the US and Nato forces during the pitched fighting could well have led to a rethink by the military leadership of plans to go after the TTP and the Haqqani network in North Waziristan.
The Pakistan military and political leadership must focus on finding a permanent but local solution to the scourge of militancy in the tribal regions. To date the military has not succeeded in cleansing the seven tribal agencies of militancy despite fighting against the militants for several years.
Pakistan’s key failures seemed to be the lack of post-operation strategies and a weak public administration and services delivery system. Currently, the affairs of the tribal agencies are in the control of the armed forces, leaving no room for civilian authorities to normalise the situation.
It is a fact that Pakistan’s strategic aims and objectives and the unfolding situation in Afghanistan have given the military the upper hand in the border region. However, nothing is achievable without winning the hearts and minds of the tribal people.
The writer is a senior journalist.