The hornets’ nest
It is 1817 square miles in area – a mass of rugged hills and mountains, cliffs, ravines and defiles. The roads are few and movement on these is vulnerable to interdiction. It shares a 150 kilometres border with the Afghan provinces of Khost and Paktia. About 600,000 people inhabit the area, mostly in the valleys. Among them live an estimated 38,000 insurgents of different hues. It’s a hornets’ nest. Welcome to North Waziristan.
The Americans, also of different hues, want the Pakistan Army to go into the hornets’ nest and take out the ‘terrorists’, who, according to them, are conducting attacks against their forces. “To make the kind of progress we need to make in Afghanistan, progress in Pakistan is critical,” says Admiral Mullen – implicit in this statement is that unless North Waziristan is cleared, the war in Afghanistan cannot be won.
The only fighters making forays from North Waziristan into eastern Afghanistan are part of the Haqqani group, and they are only one-fifth of the group whose strength is estimated at 5,000. The remaining group operates out of the eastern Afghan provinces of Paktia, Paktika and Khost.
Most of the casualties suffered by the foreign forces have been inflicted by Mullah Omar’s Taliban, who operate mainly in the south and north out of their sanctuaries in the Hindukash and scores of villages, and whose strength is placed at 25,000. Yet the Americans think that the Haqqani group is responsible for their lack of progress.
The other insurgents in North Waziristan, apart from a handful of Central Asians, are all Pakistanis who are not involved in the fighting in Afghanistan – the Hafiz Gul Bahadur group, which controls most of the Agency, has an estimated 20,000 fighters; the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, about 15,000. Both are hardened, experienced guerrilla fighters who fought the Pakistan Army between 2004 and 2008, and prevailed.
Apart from these two, about 2,000 fighters of the Jihadi groups such as Jaish-e-Muhammad, Lashkar-e-Tayyaba, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, and Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, are said to have taken refuge in North Waziristan – and like them, they also look up to Mullah Omar.
If an operation is launched in North Waziristan, it will have to contend with the harsh geography that favours the guerrillas, 38,000 fighters who know the terrain well and enjoy the support of the local population, driven towards them by the incessant drone attacks, and also with roads that lack the capacity to support large forces logistically, and the vulnerability of movement of these to ambush.
Moreover, if Mullah Nazir, who commands a force of 5,000-10,000 fighters in South Waziristan, and who had stayed neutral during the army operation in 2009, gets sucked into the war on the side of the insurgents, the army’s rear areas would become extremely vulnerable. But if he stays neutral, the TTP cadres in other agencies would threaten the rear areas, besides reaching out to other parts of the country along with the Jihadi groups.
And if the Afghan Taliban also join the war in North Waziristan, engaging them would have far-reaching geopolitical implications for Pakistan. The Afghan Taliban’s intervention would, however, eminently suit the US command in Afghanistan – the more they go, the better for them!
The Pakistan Army would also have to be wary of the effect the operation would have on the minds of its Pakhtun soldiers in particular, and on the people of FATA – it could lead to their alienation from their country. Remember the reaction of the Bengali soldiers and the people of East Pakistan to the army operation there in 1971?
If, however, despite the unfavourable environment, the Pakistan Army still decides to go in, it would have to muster the necessary infantry resources, since a counter-insurgency war is essentially infantry’s war. History has proved time and again that unless an army has the resources to fight and win, it must avoid war, most of all a counter-insurgency war. Nine years on, the Americans continue to pay dearly for ignoring history.
Since the army had gone into South Waziristan with insufficient infantry, the insurgents were able to escape to North Waziristan and other FATA agencies from where they stage hit-and-run attacks against the security forces. To forestall a repeat of this, North Waziristan will have to be isolated to prevent ingress into it or escape from it, prior to launching the main offensive, after which, the two forces (isolating and offensive) would alternate as hammer and anvil until the noose is tightened and the insurgents are strangulated.
The insurgents basically are mountain fighters. They would make full use of the heights in the area to hide as well as to dominate the valleys and roads. The heights, therefore, will have to be secured in the opening stages of the offensive in order to force them to descend into the valleys where they would be exposed to the army’s air- and ground-delivered firepower. This would require troop-carrying helicopters in large numbers.
It is the isolation phase that consumes maximum infantry resources. North Waziristan is almost 340 kilometres in circumference, out of which, it shares a 150 kilometres border with Afghanistan. As a rough guide, if a rifle company is deployed every kilometre, 41,000 infantrymen would be required (340×120 men), (four companies in a battalion – 480 men, three battalions in a brigade, and three brigades in a division). A division has about 12,000 men, but only about 4,320 infantrymen, the rest are in other arms and services; hence about nine divisions.
On the other hand, the offensive force would require about six divisions (216 companies – 54 battalions, 26,000 infantrymen), unless 50 per cent of the infantry are drawn from the Frontier Corps.
The total requirement of infantry for the two forces (isolating and offensive) would be 67,000, giving the army a ratio of 1.76 infantrymen to an insurgent. It would become 2:1 with the addition of the supporting arms and Special Forces – hardly sufficient, considering the harsh terrain and a skilled adversary. But, if the task of securing North Waziristan’s 150 kilometres border with Afghanistan is undertaken by the Americans, the Pakistan Army would need 190 companies (48 battalions, about five divisions or 23,000 men) in the isolating force, and the Americans, about 18,000 – and another 31,000 for securing Kurram Agency’s 110 kilometres border with Afghanistan, for a total of 31,000 men. Yet despite having 140,000 foreign and nearly 200,000 Afghan troops, they maintain that they lack the resources for undertaking this task.
By deploying 31,000 men, the Americans would be able to intercept the insurgents they say are denying them “the kind of progress we need to make in Afghanistan” – and thus make the kind of progress they need to make, many times over!
The geo-strategic, geo-tactical and geo-political considerations militate against an operation in North Waziristan. By carrying out this operation, we would only be serving American interests.
The writer is a retired brigadier.