Wednesday, Mar 29, 2023

The Battle For Bajaur

The Battle For Bajaur

It is now the nerve centre for military operations targeting the Taliban- al Qaeda combine. It would have its impact not only on how Pakistan prosecutes its campaign against terrorism and on the trajectory of conflict in neighbouring Afghanistan, but

Bajaur Agency in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan is now the nerve centre for military operations targeting the Taliban-al Qaeda combine. This extended battle in Bajaur will have a significant impact, not only on how Pakistan prosecutes its campaign against terrorism and on the trajectory of conflict in neighbouring Afghanistan, but also on the future of Islamist terrorism and extremism across the world.

Operation Sherdil (Lion Heart) began in August 2008 and was initially aimed at preventing the imminent fall of Khar, headquarters of Bajaur Agency, to the Taliban. While the military operations are intended to reclaim the whole of Bajaur from the Taliban – al Qaeda axis, particular emphasis has been focused on Salarzai Revenue Division (primarily in the Dara, Mullah Syed and Banda areas), Rashakai, Tang Khatta, Mamoond, Bai Cheena, Bicheena, Delay, Nisarabad, Niag Banda, Charmang and Khazana, the areas of largest concentration of the militant Islamist forces. 

During the ongoing military operations in Bajaur, some 2,744 ‘terrorists’ have already been killed, including 321 foreigners, and 1,400 injured, according to a military briefing during the joint session of Parliament in Islamabad on October 8 (since most of the ‘terrorist’ kills have been the result of aerial strikes, there is no authoritative separation of terrorist and ‘collateral’ fatalities). The military reportedly briefed the legislators about the worsening situation in FATA, NWFP and Balochistan and the US-led "war on terror" during the joint sitting of the two Houses of Parliament held in camera. This was only the third secret session of Parliament in Pakistan’s history.

After Waziristan, Bajaur is arguably the most significant stronghold of militants who have entrenched themselves in the FATA, transforming the Agency into a nerve centre of the Taliban – al Qaeda network. Sources indicate that foreign al Qaeda militants are converging on Bajaur to bolster the ranks of the jihadis during the all-out military action against them. In fact, foreign militants are reportedly leading the counter-attack, since the Army action cannot be opposed solely by the local jihadis. The foreign militants – Arabs, Chechens, Uzbeks and Afghans – are reportedly led by an Afghan commander identified as Qari Ziaur Rehman. The militants’ strength in Bajaur is estimated at about 2,000, including both foreigners and the Pakistani Taliban, according to Major General Tariq Khan, the Frontier Corps (FC) chief in the region. He said the Taliban’s fighting strength had not decreased appreciably, despite heavy casualties, due to reinforcements coming in from the northwest and Afghanistan. "I personally feel that trained squads have been moved in," Khan added.

Ever since militants of different nationalities began using Bajaur as a safe haven, they have transformed the region into a well secured fortress, constructing tunnel systems and trenches across the Agency. Network of tunnels have been discovered in the Taliban strongholds of Tankkhata, Rashakai and Loyesam, and sources disclosed to the Daily Times that "They [militants] would fire at the Forces from some house and then use the tunnel to escape the Army’s return fire." According to the report, "these foreigners were interested in renting houses by the roadside, and paid Rs. 20,000 to Rs. 25,000 in rent per month. The purpose of renting houses along the roadside was to attack the Forces if they launched action against the militants." 

The militants’ resistance is stiffening, with better tactics and communication systems, reinforcements, and arms and ammunition from across the border. Reinforcements are coming from other Agencies in the FATA and from Afghanistan (primarily from the Kunar province). Western diplomatic sources acknowledge that the "level of violence in Kunar has dropped appreciably since the launch of the operation in Bajaur, indicating a planning and operational linkage that overlaps the Durand Line." 

The extremists, Army chief Kayani said during his visit to Bajaur on September 28, 2008, were attacking not only security forces and Government installations but were also blowing up girls’ schools and health centres.

As has happened elsewhere in Pakistan, the conflict in Bajaur has led to a huge displacement of the civilian population. While there are no accurate figures of the number of refugees, reliable reportage indicates that an estimated 500,000 people have been displaced from the Agency since August 2008. There has also been a flight out of Bajaur by an estimated 70, 000 Afghans, following orders by the local administration to vacate the Agency. Many of the Afghans reportedly have crossed the border into Afghanistan, while others have shifted to the Dir Lower District. The Afghan refugees in Bajaur had been living there since the late 1970s, after fleeing the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. 

Despite the widespread violence, displacement and an expansion of the conflict into other areas, including several cities in Pakistan, the Army remains optimistic about reclaiming the territory. The FC Inspector General, Major General Tariq Khan, stated, on September 26, that the situation in Bajaur would be stabilised within two months: "My timeframe for Bajaur is anything from between one-and-a-half to two months to bring about stability." He stated that the troops had killed more than 1,000 Taliban – al Qaeda militants and injured 2,000 others since the offensive began in early August, and that five top commanders were among those killed in the ongoing operations. Among the commanders killed were Egyptian Abu Saeed Al-Masri, Arab Abu Suleiman, Uzbek Mullah Mansoor, and an Afghan commander identified as Manaras. The fifth was a son of Maulana Faqir Mohammad, the top Taliban commander in the region. Some 63 soldiers had died and 212 were injured in the operation so far, Khan disclosed further.

The stakes for the military in Bajaur are immense. As Pakistani commentator Ismail Khan notes, it has "created a surrender-or-die situation for the militants and a now-or-never moment for the country’s security forces." Some in the Army believe that 65 percent of the Taliban problem would be eliminated if they were defeated in Bajaur. Describing Bajaur as a ‘centre of gravity’ for the Taliban, Major General Tariq Khan claimed, "If they lose here, they’ve lost almost everything." He explained, further: "Why we are calling this a test case? If we dismantle the training camps here, the headquarters, the communication centres, the roots which come in, stop the inter-agency movement and destroy the leadership. Out here we feel that about 65 per cent or so of militancy would have been controlled." 

But this optimism is not generally shared, even within the Army. Military operations had been a mixed bag of success and setbacks and no timeframe could be given about the ongoing campaigns, sources in the military said in a media briefing on September 29. "It is a continual operation. It is not going to end in 2008 and it is not going to end in 2009. Don’t be optimistic, as far as the timeframe is concerned. It is a different ground and it will take some time."

That the Army has a difficult task is obvious. But the situation is made worse by a trust deficit at the local level which, in turn, has been aggravated by US incursions in FATA. The mounting civilian casualties (which are impossible to estimate at present) and a steadily growing refugee situation have added to the complexities. Further, Islamabad has predominantly relied on an aerial strategy to target militant locations in Bajaur. Noted journalist Syed Saleem Shahzad observes, "the Army, according to sources, was not deployed on the ground because it is not prepared to take casualties. Until the Army gains control of the ground, military operations in Bajaur will remain in limbo." 

Government and security officials have disclosed to the media that "they are baffled by the resilience and stiff resistance offered by the battle-hardened fighters, by their tactics and the sophistication of their weapons and communications systems." One senior official noted that "They have good weaponry and a better communication system (than ours)… Even the sniper rifles they use are better than some of ours. Their tactics are mind-boggling and they have defences that would take us days to build. It does not look as though we are fighting a rag-tag militia; they are fighting like an organised force."

There is, moreover, significant apprehension in Islamabad that increasing ‘collateral damage’ in an augmenting conflict may lead to a severe public backlash across Pakistan, and consequently undermine the political support required for a successful campaign in Bajaur. Reports already indicate that the fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), which has a "strong political base in Bajaur and has had close ties with Gulbadin Hekmatyar’s Hizb-i-Islami (which operates in Kunar) has already launched a campaign against the operation."

On its side, the Taliban appears to be determined to defend Bajaur till the last jihadi. More importantly, however, they are clearly escalating the conflict in Pakistan's cities. The latest instance of this strategy was visible on October 9, when a bomb blast destroyed the headquarters of Pakistan's Anti-Terrorist Squad (ATS) in Islamabad, though there were no casualties (four policemen were reportedly wounded) since there were few Policemen at the location at that time. The bomb, which was disguised as a packet of sweets, was allegedly sent by Waliur Rehman, a Bajaur-based commander of the Jaish-e-Islami Pakistan, a militant group aligned with the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Waliur Rehman was reportedly wounded on September 25 when helicopter gunships targeted his hideout in Khar, headquarters of the Bajaur Agency. A note left at the ATS office said: "Human bombs would continue to target the security forces personnel if the Pakistani authorities do not stop fighting the US-led war against terror." Even the suicide bombing at Hotel Marriott in Islamabad on September 20, in which 60 people were killed, was a clear indication that the Taliban have brought the battle to Pakistan’s cities. An emboldened Taliban also abducted Abdul Khaliq Farahi, Afghanistan's Ambassador-designate to Islamabad, from the upscale Hyatabad area in Peshawar, capital of the NWFP, in broad daylight on September 22, after killing his driver. Till the time of writing, Farahi remains missing.

Islamabad, evidently, has limited choices, and the options are circumscribed further by the immense pressure that is currently being exerted by Washington. Even as Operation Sherdil continues, sources indicate that preparations are underway to begin an all-out campaign in North Waziristan, where some militant leaders are believed to have shifted. NATO reportedly favors the operation in North Waziristan because, "like Bajaur, it is a nest of Afghan resistance, mainly of (the) pro-Pakistan Jalaluddin Haqqani (faction)." Significantly, the neutralization of any ‘high-value target’ in the FATA is expected to have considerable impact on the campaign strategy of Republican candidate John McCain in the U.S. 

An eventual failure in Bajaur or the abandonment of Operation Sherdil midway (as has been the case for military operations in South Waziristan, Darra Adamkhel and Swat on earlier occasions), will undermine the entire effort to restore some measure of order along the frontier – and indeed, across Pakistan. The campaign in Bajaur is crucial to successes in the other provinces and will impact on the strategy of the Taliban – al Qaeda combine both in Pakistan and Afghanistan. 

Kanchan Lakshman is Research Fellow, Institute for Conflict Management; Assistant Editor, Faultlines: Writings on Conflict & Resolution