All indications from the military authorities point to the completion of the evacuation of residents from North Waziristan Agency (NWA). Nevertheless, the military authorities have attempted to persuade any stragglers, stranded people and those who may have stayed behind to look after their properties to leave the area. These developments confirm the likelihood of the expected ground assault as imminent. Whereas air and artillery bombardments killed 18-19 terrorists on Saturday, the tough part now looms when ground troops will attempt to flush out and as far as possible eliminate terrorists who may still be holed up in NWA. The Saturday bombardments, according to the military authorities, included the destruction of six confirmed hideouts and the killing of 11 terrorists by PAF strikes. Artillery and tank fire outside encircled Miranshah killed another seven, including Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) commander Umer and the capture of a prominent al Qaeda commander while trying to flee. The captured al Qaeda commander is said to be an expert at explosives, improvised explosive devices and suicide belts. Whereas 19 terrorists surrendered the other day and more are expected to lay down their arms as the campaign grinds on, three terrorists were arrested on Saturday while trying to cross the Indus and escape near Mianwali. It is being reported that all crossing points on the Indus are now manned by the security forces as part of the cordon established around NWA. Although the military authorities are confident that they have cut off all escape routes, once the ground assault begins will come the real test of this claim. Particularly of concern is the Shawal Valley that traverses South and North Waziristan and even into Afghanistan and is considered some of the toughest terrain favouring guerrillas because of its maze-like formation, forest cover, etc. Reports speak of the TTP and their affiliated terrorist groups decamping to the Shawal Valley, although it is not yet clear whether they would risk a determined resistance in the area or only a holding operation to allow the bulk of their forces and leaders to melt away. This is the tactic Mulla Fazlullah used in Swat when the military offensive rolled up at his doorstep. The other concern in this context therefore is the ability of the Pakistani and Afghan forces on the other side to seal off the notoriously porous border, the recent agreement on cooperation between the two countries notwithstanding. Even with the best intentions, it is an inherently very difficult task, given the terrain, familiarity of the terrorists with the border escape routes, and even the lateness in time of the Pakistan-Afghanistan agreement. It may be recalled that at the height of the Afghan Taliban’s forays into Afghanistan from their safe havens on Pakistani soil to fight the US, NATO and Afghan forces, Washington’s pleas to Islamabad to cooperate in a ‘hammer and anvil’ campaign, whereby the allied forces would hit the Afghan Taliban hard on the Afghan side of the border (the ‘hammer’) and the Pakistani forces would stop them from escaping into Pakistani territory (the ‘anvil’) was summarily rejected by the the military because of lingering wrong notions of ‘strategic depth’ and the Afghan Taliban being our ‘strategic assets’. Time, experience, and the exposure of the nexus between the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, best reflected in the Haqqani network’s willingness to host and provide a safe haven to Mulla Fazlullah in the eastern provinces of Afghanistan bordering Pakistan has overtaken such notions. Now the military has not only changed tack, it has employed what it considers sufficient air and ground firepower to succeed in its assault on the TTP and other terrorist bases in NWA.
While nothing can be predicted with absolute certainty in military operations before the event, good generalship always requires planning for contingencies, setbacks, unexpected developments on the battlefield, etc. No one should have any illusions that the winkling out of the terrorist presence from NWA will be easy, quick, or a one-off event. Once the initial clearing of the area is largely achieved, other, even tougher long term tasks loom. Counter-insurgency requires that the phase of clearing be followed by stages in which ‘hold’ and ‘develop’ acquire great importance if the initial successes are to be consolidated. Unlike the Swat operation, it would be in the fitness of things if there were not a long hiatus between the clearing phase and the development one, the latter requiring civilian institutional arrangements to be restored. However, the manner in which the terrorists have decapitated the traditional tribal leadership of Mallicks by killing almost 500 of them over time, it is not clear whether the future would allow a return to the traditional methods of governance and control in NWA in particular and FATA in general. If not, this should not be seen as a complete disaster but rather an opportunity to bring NWA and FATA into the mainstream through appropriate policies and steps. All this lies ahead. For the moment, we can only wish our forces success against the menace of terrorism. *