S. Azmat Hassan is a former Pakistani diplomat. He is now a professor at Seton Hall University. He writes about the current Pakistani military campaign in South Waziristan and what the U.S. should do in the troubled region.
After months of planning, the Pakistani army has finally dispatched 38,000 troops into the Pakistani Taliban stronghold of South Waziristan. President Zardari and Army Chief Kiyani doubtlessly hope for a knockout blow to the newly anointed leader of the Pakistani Taliban, Hakimullah Mehsud. How much support Hakimullah enjoys among his fierce and warlike fellow tribesmen, the Mehsuds, is not known.
Military analysts estimate that Hakimullah commands around 10,000 fighters including 1500 battle-hardened Uzbeks from Uzbekistan. The Pakistani Taliban may be numerically outnumbered but have the advantage of terrain, tribal solidarity and extremist ideology.
It is crucial for the Pakistani army to blunt the power of the Mehsud group. A stalemate this time will be interpreted as a serious setback which could have ominous repercussions for the Zardari-led civilian government. If Hakimullah stands his ground, his stature among violent extremists in the region will grow. The ability of the Afghan Taliban to continue to use Pakistan’s lawless and ungovernable tribal areas bordering eastern Afghanistan as sanctuaries will continue unimpeded. Therefore there is much riding on the Pakistani operation. Its reverberations will be felt not only in Islamabad and Kabul but also in Washington, London and other Western capitals.
The modern history of Afghanistan is a sorry saga of continual blundering by the Afghans, the Soviets, the Americans and the Pakistanis. The Afghan leadership fell into the lap of the Soviets in the 1970’s, and the Soviets committed the original sin in 1979 of invading, occupying and brutalizing a poor neighbor which had done it no harm. The famous Soviet physicist and Nobel laureate Andrei Sakharov, said it best when he stated, “The war in Afghanistan itself was criminal, a criminal adventure taken on, undertaken by who knows who, and who knows [who] bears the responsibility for this enormous crime of our motherland.” The US turned their backs on a broken Afghanistan after the Soviets withdrew in defeat in 1989. This was a sure recipe for radicalizing the region.
The Pakistani security establishment trained and groomed the Taliban after the latter captured power in Kabul in 1996. Today the Pakistani Taliban has turned on their former mentors. For the Pakistani leadership and common people, they have become Frankensteinian monsters.
The Obama administration made a big error in coining its so-called ‘Afpak’ strategy. What was required were two different approaches for two different, albeit neighboring, countries, with not much in common between them. Conflating the two and putting them in the same basket showed both ignorance and unfamiliarity with the political dynamics of both. I am glad Obama is reviewing Afpak. He should treat both countries as separate entities, and the U.S. should craft different approaches to them. Hopefully Richard Holbrooke after his numerous visits to both nations has been able to advise Hilary Clinton and Obama suitably.
To succeed in its campaign, the Pakistani army will have to take a crash course in counterinsurgency warfare. Conventional land wars and confronting Taliban insurgents in their mountainous bases are as different as chalk and cheese. The Pakistanis desperately need counterinsurgency materiel such as attack helicopters, electronic surveillance devices, night vision goggles, etc. The U.S. should cut out the bureaucratic red tape and provide such assistance quickly. It is in their interest that the Pakistani army succeed in their assault on their mutual enemies.
Finally, I would advise the Pakistani planners and their American allies to locate and cut off the financial support available to the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban. This is an achievable task. The UN and Interpol can provide help, as can the European Union, the Iranians, Russians and other interested parties. Without sizable financial support, such insurgencies wither away sooner rather than later. That is how al-Qaeda has been reduced to a shadow of its former strength. This is the most effective way to defang the two Talibans.