87d243239aa58210VgnVCM100000e56411acRCRDapproved/thenational/Articles/Migration/2009-Q4The Taliban will fight for their last bastion: and they will lose77d243239aa58210VgnVCM100000e56411ac____The Taliban will fight for their last bastion: and they will loseAny terrorist organisation such as the Taliban needs territory under its control: for their HQ, training, administration, issuing co-ordinated instructions, and a safe haven. South Waziristan is the Taliban's last bastion, and they will fight for it.<p>Ten days after Pakistan's armed forces began their offensive on the Taliban stronghold of South Waziristan, what progress is being made and what are the chances of ultimate success?
Waziristan is the largest chunk of territory along the north-west frontier; it is harsh, rugged, semi-mountainous terrain, with very few springs and waterholes, and therefore sparsely populated. The last census two decades ago (all censuses of Tribal Areas are notoriously inaccurate) calculated the population of South Waziristan, the area of the Mehsud tribe, at 250,000. A rough estimate today would put it at about 400,000, of whom 200,000 left before the attack began, and about 150,000 have gone since. The remaining 50,000 Mehsuds are more or less equally divided under Hakimullah Mehsud and Wali ur Rehman, both former deputies to the late Baitullah Mehsud.</p>
<p>Two days before the offensive I spoke to some of the young officers and soldiers preparing for Operation Rah e Nijaat, which roughly translates as "The path to rid oneself". What impressed me most was that they were totally calm and unworried. It was obvious that these were battle-hardened veterans. Some expressed their unhappiness at having to fight their own citizens, but they had seen what the Taliban were capable of and, despite the regret, were fully determined. My confidence in their ability increased with each minute that I spoke to them.</p>
<p>South Waziristan is adjacent to the southern extreme of North West Frontier Province (NWFP), and a strip to its southeast juts in towards Punjab. To its north is North Waziristan, east lie the settled areas of NWFP, south is Balochistan, and to its west is Afghanistan. This is not Swat, which shares no borders with Afghanistan, enabling the military to make use of all entry points into the region and ensuring minimal escape routes for the Taliban.</p>
<p>The Pakistani army therefore has three ways into South Waziristan, and has chosen to block the southern exit while attacking from the north and east. The army has obviously been permitted to use North Waziristan with the assurance that their rear will not be threatened; what they promised the Wazirs in return is unknown.
The northern assault gives the security forces the shortest route to the areas where the terrorist HQ and training camps are, as well as to Kotkai, home village of both Hakimullah and Qari Hussain, alias Qari Raees, the man primarily responsible for training suicide bombers. This village fell to the army on Saturday after two days of fierce fighting.</p>
<p>Meanwhile, it was to be expected that US forces would have sealed entry and exit to South Waziristan from Afghanistan. But surprisingly, instead of playing the anvil to the Pakistan army's hammer, the Americans unexpectedly vacated seven posts on the Afghan border. Whatever deal has been struck between the army and the Wazirs, and although the Wazirs have traditionally fought to oust foreigners from their territory, it is not unlikely that some of them may still be inclined to give safe passage to Afghan Taliban reinforcements - which would compound the problem by threatening the army's rear.</p>
<p>I am certain that US forces are well aware of this; if they have opened the door, reinforcements can enter South Waziristan at will, and in the face of impending defeat will be able to escape back to Afghanistan. Pakistan's Chief of Army Staff has already raised his concerns on this issue with Gen David Petraeus, the head of US Central Command.
Militarily, the only plausible explanation for this otherwise inexplicable act by US forces is that they want reinforcements to enter South Waziristan from Afghanistan, and will promptly slam the trapdoor shut behind them. However, unless this is prearranged with the Pakistani forces, which is obviously not the case, their task will be made many times more difficult.</p>
<p>Any terrorist organisation such as the Taliban needs territory under its control: for their HQ, training, administration, issuing co-ordinated instructions, and a safe haven. South Waziristan is the Taliban's last bastion, and they will fight for it. If reinforcements sneak through from Afghanistan, the battle could be prolonged and take a greater toll. Even as the Americans, recognising the significance of this operation, are promising all possible assistance by way of intelligence and employing drones in support of the Pakistan forces, they also seem to be making things as difficult as possible by vacating posts from where Uzbeks and Tajiks can, and will, reinforce the Mehsuds.</p>
<p>If we go by the population figures I have quoted, there are fewer than 50,000 Mehsuds left in South Waziristan. Even if not all of them are Taliban, the presence of a few thousand foreigners and Punjabis will make up the numbers. Pakistani troops carrying out the offensive number only 30,000. They undoubtedly have more firepower, but as they capture and hold territory their numbers will thin further, despite reinforcements moving in to hold captured areas.</p>
<p>The progress of the northern prong of the assault has been understandably slow, owing to both mountainous terrain and stiff resistance. However, troops have captured the heights first and have attacked valleys from there. Srarogha will be the next test; it is another Taliban stronghold, followed by two more before the Ladha, the final redoubt.
So far the Pakistan forces are meeting their timetable for the offensive, but progress from now on is likely to much slower, as the lines of communication are extended and become vulnerable to guerrilla action.</p>
<p>Despite the difficulties, it appears that the army is likely to succeed in retaking South Waziristan - while the US inadvertantly appears to be helping both sides! They have done this many times before, of course, but it was hardly to be expected on this occasion.
<i>Brig Gen Shaukat Qadir is a retired Pakistani infantry officer</i></p>