LAHORE // For the Pakistan army, the months-long offensive against Taliban militants in Swat has taken a toll. Nearly 150 soldiers have been killed and hundreds more injured as the military tried to break the hold the extremists had on the former tourist valley.
Yet, as the military prepares for a march into South Waziristan to fight what could be its toughest battle yet, spirit in the ranks is remarkably high. An army captain who was injured in Swat and so will not be fighting in Waziristan said his colleagues were both apprehensive but exhilerated. "Swat was a huge challenge and it took us weeks to eradicate the Taliban from the area," he said. "Knowing the public is behind us 100 per cent makes us want to go to all extents to do a good job. But South Waziristan is tricky and difficult which is why so many captains are worried. Also fighting against one's own country men is always hard, even if they are extremists."
The battle for South Waziristan, also called Operation Rah-e-Nijat (Path of Salvation), is the second phase of Operation Rah-e-Rast (Straight Path) and is regarded as Pakistan's first major military offensive in the war against terrorism. The rugged terrain of Waziristan is the key frontier in this country: it is from here that militants cross over the border to launch attacks in Afghanistan and it is also in these mountains that Osama bin Laden and the remnants of al Qa'eda are said to be hiding.
"Earlier Pakistan was allowing the United States to take the front-seat through drone attacks," said Hassan Askari, a political analyst. "But this time, it's the army which is at the forefront and the Americans, as well as the rest of the world, are looking on." The public face of the campaign is Major Gen Athar Abbas, the army spokesman, who spends long hours in his Islamabad office, a phone pressed against his ear and his eyes locked on the multiple television screens in front of him.
When The National caught up with him this week, he was rushing between meetings and fuming at some of the criticisms regarding the army campaign in the foreign press. Echoing the government line, Major Gen Abbas described the Swat campaign as a huge success. "We have beaten the Taliban decisively in Swat," he said, adding that at least 1,400 militants had been killed so far. "We have really shown them that we mean business and now their top leadership is on the run."
Gen Abbas explained that this was the plan: defeat the Taliban in Swat, force the leadership to retreat into Waziristan and then push into the tribal areas and target the upper echelon of their command. He also said the military strategy in Waziristan was much the same as the one purused in Swat where air strikes softened up the area before ground troops moved in. There is one difference, however, in Waziristan, the army has a target: Baitullah Mehsud. Mehsud is head of the Pakistani Taliban and suspected being in the assassination of Benazir Bhutto in 2007. Major Abbas said the army has been monitoring intelligence about Mehsud from the area, and is confident about their ability to successfully target him.
"We realise it's not going to be an easy battle," he said. "After all we are talking about the most notorious terrorist in Pakistan's history and one who is rumoured to be controlling a militia of more than 1,000 men. But we are closing in on him." Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, the army chief, recently flew over the area and emphasised the army's commitment to killing Mehsud and dissolving his power base.
According to a source in the ISI, the army's intelligence arm, a number of pro-Taliban groups such as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, Jaish-e-Muhammad and Sipah-e-Sahaba were sending fighters into Waziristan to assist Mehsud's men. Major Gen Abbas agreed that militants from surrounding areas did seem to be moving into Waziristan. "We have seen intelligence reports about Taliban from the agencies - namely Bajaur, Mohmand and Kurram - entering Waziristan to help their compatriots here," he said. "But our preparations are complete and we have already moved heavy arsenal into the area.
"We are controlling the exits and entries into South Waziristan," Gen Abbas said. "We have started closing off all accessible routes so that nothing can go in or out without our permission, and our intelligence wing is closely monitoring Mehsud's men to provide us with minute-to-minute updates." But despite the optimism, military experts fear the army may soon over-extend itself. The Pakistan army remains deployed in Swat and though Syed Athar Ali, the defence secretary, believes the offensive in what was once described as Pakistan's Switzerland has almost been concluded, the army would need to stay there for the foreseeable future.
"We're looking for a comprehensive solution in Swat," he said. "And that entails the army vacating only after the police and the local government have demonstrated they have the means and the ability to maintain peace in the valley. Till then, we shall stay." Though there are no official reports of troop shortages, Rasool Baksh Raees, a political and security analyst, said the army will soon start to feel the strain.
"For this initiative to be successful, the army should hope and pray for a swift victory," he said. "The terrain of Waziristan is tiring to navigate and an army which is already extended along the Pak-India border and in Swat can't afford a campaign which goes on for months." Gen Abbas said the military was prepared to stay in the area for about a year. "The complete solution to ending militancy in both Swat and Waziristan is a political one instead of a military option," he said. "We are adopting a five-prong strategy: alongside the military campaign, the government is trying to bolster the police force, improve the civil administration and involve the community leaders. Only by doing so can terrorism be ended in the region."
Gen Abbas admitted that the military campaign in Swat was a revelation of sorts for the army. "We have learnt more about the Taliban now than we ever knew before," he said. "We now know that most Taliban fighters have received some kind of formal military training but they are in no shape to fight a conventional war against the Pakistan army." He said the weapons used by the Taliban were coming across the border from Afghanistan and included Nato weapons. A US government report last month stated the Pentagon did not have "complete records" for about one-third of the 242,000 weapons the United States had provided to the Afghan army, or for a further 135,000 weapons other countries sent, CNN reported.
Tighter controls by Nato forces are essential to cutting off the supply chain of weapons to the Taliban, Gen Abbas said. One ISI source said the army had intelligence suggesting the Taliban was also receiving arms from foreign sources, such as India. But Pakistan's neighbour has adamantly denied any such reports. Mr Ali, the defence secretary, believes the West is too pre-occupied with Pakistan's nuclear arsenal which he said is safe and under strict surveillance.
"There isn't even the remotest possibility of militants grabbing hold of our weapons." * The National