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War Over Waziristan

The Meaning of Pakistan's Offensive Against the Taliban's Heartland


Waziristan Map
Wikimedia Commons

For the fourth time in six years, the Pakistani military in mid-October 2009 launched an offensive against South Waziristan, the forbiddingly mountainous and abjectly poor Pakistani region controlled by the Pakistani Taliban and used as a safe haven by al-Qaeda.

Osama bin Laden and his Arab fighters, along with Taliban fighters, escaped to South Waziristan in 2001. According to journalist Ahmed Rashid, in Descent Into Chaos (2008), "It was from there that the bomb plots in London, Madrid, Bali, Islamabad, and later Germany and Denmark were planned."

The Pakistani offensive has been in the works for four months. It's part of Pakistan's deal with the Obama administration, which championed a multi-billion aid package for Pakistan predicated on the Pakistani government fighting the Taliban's state-within-a-state more seriously: $1.5 billion a year in civilian aid for the next five years in addition to $1 billion a year in military aid.

Terms of the $7.5 billion Aid Package

President Obama signed the aid package into law on Oct. 15, 2009.

The Pakistani military was outraged by the conditions in the so-called Kerry-Lugar-Berman bill, which state that no more than $750 million a year would make it to Pakistan "unless the President’s Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan submits to the appropriate congressional committees during that fiscal year... a certification that assistance provided to Pakistan under this Act to date has made or is making substantial progress toward achieving the principal objectives of United States assistance to Pakistan."

The conditions went further, making explicit that Pakistan should use the money to reform its police force, develop an "independent, efficient and effective judicial system," respect human rights and free media, counter the drug trade and implement "legal and political reforms in the FATA," the federally administered tribal areas where the Taliban holds sway. And that's just the political reforms. The list of conditions gets longer.

Of course, the Obama administration, through the secretary of state, reserves the right to waive restrictions on the money if it "determines it is important to the national security interests of the United States to provide such waiver."

The Pakistani Military’s Problem With U.S. Aid

That doesn't appease the Pakistani military, which had been the virtual exclusive recipient of U.S. aid in the Bush years (about $10 billion worth), without conditions. (And look where and what that got the United States. Or Pakistan, for that matter.)

It pleases the Pakistani military even less that the Pakistani president, Asif Ali Zardari, has proven a willing American bidder quite unlike his predecessor, Pervez Musharraf, who was continually playing all sides of the Pakistani fence.

So it's not at all clear that the military will do what Zardari wants. The Pakistani military is a notoriously fickle institution, proud and presumptuous, used to running the country and a good deal of its business, too (the Pakistani military has its hand in huge swaths of the private sector). It doesn't like to be told what to do--not by the country's civilian leadership, even less so by Americans. But that's what's happening now.

Limits of the Pakistani Military’s Power

Last summer, the Pakistani military took on the Taliban in the Swat Valley and did a fair job of pushing back the Taliban, which had taken control of Swat in the previous months. But Swat was not traditionally Taliban country. And even now, Taliban elements remain in Swat, roguishly imposing their will where they can and flouting Pakistani authority. The Pakistani military has yet to prove that it can take on the Taliban in the Taliban's heartland--and win.

That's unlikely for two reasons. The first is the military's sense of itself as a limited liability company: it'll only go so far in endangering its men or its power, and going too far into Taliban country will do both.

Second, Waziristan over the past decade has been transformed into a Taliban Maginot Line replete with underground tunnels, bunkers, weapons caches and, when necessary (which is often in Taliban country) prisons, torture and execution chambers, although the Taliban is big on public, overground executions. It's what gives it its universal moniker: feared.

Waziristan or Bust?

The Pakistani Taliban of Waziristan is especially feared, because it is made up of the Mehsud tribe, the same Mehsuds who produced Baitullah Mehsud, the young, bloodthirsty leader killed in a U.S. missile strike in August, and who have produced Pakistan's most fearsome fighters. Pakistan has been complicit in the Taliban's power: Pakistani leaders going back to the irresponsibly venerated Benazir Bhutto, as well as Zia ul Haq, who murdered Bhutto's father in 1979, fostered and trained the militiamen who became the Taliban as a proxy fighting force against India in Kashmir and against Soviet, then anti-Pakistan, elements in Afghanistan in the 1990s.

So how far the Pakistani military can go in fighting the Taliban is not difficult to tell: It will not go so far as to demolish a proxy force it may well need in the future, as it has needed it in the past. And the military isn’t just fighting the Taliban. It’s fighting the perception that Pakistan is an American puppet.

For the Obama administration, a lot hinges on the Waziristan offensive—including the possibility, however long the shot, of capturing Osama bin Laden who, if he’s alive, is believed to be lurking somewhere in Waziristan. But neither a Pakistani victory in Waziristan nor a bin Laden capture is the sort of thing to hold one’s breath over.

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