Friday, November 6, 2009

Encounter is the solution in waziristan

To overwhelm the Taliban, Islamabad needs to learn from the mistakes the British, Soviets and Americans made in Waziristan. For an unstable Pakistan, it’s now or never...

Much has been written about how and why Waziristan and Afghanistan turned into valleys of death for invaders. In 1920 a British brigade was decimated in Waziristan losing 400 soldiers, including 28 British and 15 Indian officers.

Since 9/11, the Pakistan Army has made several forays into Waziristan but each time it failed to achieve its objectives. In December 1979, the Soviets occupied Afghanistan. But it didn’t take them long to realize that it was far more difficult to withdraw than it was to come in.

Then the Americans came and occupied Afghanistan. Eight years on they too have discovered this cardinal truth. History supports much of what has been written. Pakistan has taken a fateful decision; it has chosen to defy history. After months of the softening up of targets, the ground operation began this month. The strategy employed seeks to capture the ‘critical space’ of the guerrillas in the triangle formed by Makeen-Ladha-Sararogha by advancing on it from three directions, then undertaking mopping-up operations.

This strategy may well succeed depending on what is perceived as success. Would it be the occupation of spaces under Mehsud’s control? Or would it be the elimination of Hakeemullah’s Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP)? In a conventional war, occupation of enemy territory constitutes success; in counter-insurgency, elimination. Unless the occupation of TTP spaces also leads to their elimination, the army would inevitably be drawn into a protracted guerrilla war of the kind that the Soviets fought and lost, and the Americans are fighting and losing.

Time and space are of the essence for an army, both in a conventional and an unconventional war. For the guerrillas they are not as they keep moving from one location to another, striking not one large blow but a number of small blows in different directions to make the army bleed from a thousand cuts; they avoid pitched battles unless the terrain favours them. Otherwise they give away space by design to fight another day. This is what their counterparts in Afghanistan did when thousands of US Marines landed in Helmand River valley in a pre-dawn assault recently. The guerrillas simply withdrew into the mountains, and then returned to devastate the invaders with hit-and-run attacks that forced Gen McChrystal to demand 40,000 more troops or else face defeat within a year.

The only spatial situation the guerrillas fear is when they are denied access to their safe havens in the mountains and areas adjoining the theatre, and when they know that after hitting, they cannot run. A situation such as this creates a choking effect. If the Soviets had blocked the Durand Line on their side to prevent crossborder movement, the Mujahideen in Afghanistan would have been isolated from their handlers and logistics based in Pakistan. The Soviet forces had become victims of their general staff’s lack of strategic vision.

The Americans, too, made the same mistake. If they too had secured the Durand Line on their side prior to launching their air-bombing campaign, the Taliban fighters, tormenting them for the last eight years, would not have been able to slip away into Pakistan. Instead of correcting their strategy, they have chosen to blame Pakistan for their failure.

It remains to be seen whether the strategy under which the ground operation was launched will succeed in creating a situation where the guerrillas are subjected to progressive choking and elimination. The advance from three directions is reminiscent of the ‘advance to contact’ operation of a conventional war. It is a set piece and slow operation, hence predictable, and any strategy or tactics that can be predicted can be countered.

In an unconventional war, it is the army’s unconventional strategy that usually succeeds as it carries the all important element of surprise. Thus, one such strategy, though risky, as all such strategies are, comes close to meeting this requirement. Under it the theatre of operations is isolated during the preparatory phase to prevent the guerrillas from making ingress into it or exit from it.

The ground operation is then opened by seizing the heights that dominate Makeen, Ladha and Sararogha by heliborne troops under suppressive fire by gunships, artillery and F-16 s. In Phase 2, waves of helicopters land more troops while the force employed to isolate the theatre moves forward. In Phase 3, as more troops are landed, Makeen, Ladha and Sararogha are attacked. In Phase 4, the troops attack outwards with the troops of the isolating force moving inwards. A stage is then reached where the noose is finally tightened.

No comments :

Post a Comment