Hide and seek in the FATA

Pakistani Army chief General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani may not have hung a "Mission Accomplished" banner as he declared victory against the Taliban in South Waziristan, but he certainly struck a note of triumphalism. What he neglected to mention was that the battle hadn’t ended, it merely shifted to a new theater: Orakzai, a tribal agency ...

NICOLAS ASFOURI/AFP/Getty Images
NICOLAS ASFOURI/AFP/Getty Images
NICOLAS ASFOURI/AFP/Getty Images

Pakistani Army chief General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani may not have hung a "Mission Accomplished" banner as he declared victory against the Taliban in South Waziristan, but he certainly struck a note of triumphalism. What he neglected to mention was that the battle hadn't ended, it merely shifted to a new theater: Orakzai, a tribal agency further north of South Waziristan. 

When the Pakistani military launched an operation in South Waziristan last October, residents were given a window to clear the area. The military's desire to avoid civilian casualties was understandable and politically necessary, but it gave Taliban leaders an opportunity to walk right out of the war zone and set up camp in Orakzai.

The Pakistani Army has belatedly woken up to this reality and ramped up its offensive in Orakzai over the past couple of weeks. The tactics it has employed, however, are questionable. Perhaps fearing casualties and a loss of morale, ground troops are being used to supplement air power rather than the other way around. The successful Swat offensive last year relied heavily on ground troops, a strategy that has not been repeated in Orakzai.

Pakistani Army chief General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani may not have hung a "Mission Accomplished" banner as he declared victory against the Taliban in South Waziristan, but he certainly struck a note of triumphalism. What he neglected to mention was that the battle hadn’t ended, it merely shifted to a new theater: Orakzai, a tribal agency further north of South Waziristan. 

When the Pakistani military launched an operation in South Waziristan last October, residents were given a window to clear the area. The military’s desire to avoid civilian casualties was understandable and politically necessary, but it gave Taliban leaders an opportunity to walk right out of the war zone and set up camp in Orakzai.

The Pakistani Army has belatedly woken up to this reality and ramped up its offensive in Orakzai over the past couple of weeks. The tactics it has employed, however, are questionable. Perhaps fearing casualties and a loss of morale, ground troops are being used to supplement air power rather than the other way around. The successful Swat offensive last year relied heavily on ground troops, a strategy that has not been repeated in Orakzai.

Stationed troops are little more than sitting ducks for militants, who are going on the offensive against the army. On March 24, after 21 alleged militants were killed in an air strike in Orakzai, the Taliban lobbed four rockets at a security forces’ camp. The defensive posture of the army was highlighted the next day when, as reported in the Pashtu-language daily Wahdat, security forces repelled a militant attack in the Shanakha and Mir Bakht areas of Orakzai, killing nine suspected militants. With ground forces merely reacting to Taliban attacks and hoping aerial bombardment will do the heavy lifting of eliminating the militants, the Pakistani Army will only be successful in killing a fraction of fighters, without ever being able to clear the area.

Instead, the army seems satisfied with trying to box the militants in by strengthening check-posts at all entry and exit points in Orakzai. This was done after intelligence agencies found that militants in Orakzai were providing supplies to Taliban-allied militants across the country. As the string of suicide bombings in Pakistan over the last year has shown, however, checkpoints are not the most effective deterrent in restricting the movement of militants.

The presumed death of then-Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan chief Hakimullah Mehsud has given the army an opportunity to weaken the Taliban. Instead of a member of the Mehsud tribe assuming the TTP’s leadership position as was the precedent, there has been a free-for-all as Mullah Toofan and Commander Rafique have battled for control of the Pakistani Taliban. While the two factions signed a peace accord on March 21, on March 31, Ziaur Rehman, a Taliban commander allied with Mullah Toofan, was killed in Mashti in Orakzai, allegedly by a rival faction.

As the Taliban battle among themselves in Orakzai, the army needs to avoid the mistake of taking sides. Back in 2007, when Abdullah Mehsud was leading the Pakistani Taliban, there were suspicions that the army aided Baitullah Mehsud in securing Abdullah’s overthrow, creating an even bigger monster in the process. With a hands-off approach to internal Taliban disputes and greater faith in ground troops, the army could prevent Orakzai from becoming South Waziristan before the military operations there — a Taliban hotspot.

Nadir Hassan works for the Express Tribune, an English-language newspaper in Pakistan scheduled to launch this spring.

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