Battle of Bajaur: A critical test for Pakistan's military

Posted in Pakistan | 23-Sep-08 | Author: Ismail Khan and Carlotta Gall| Source: International Herald Tribune

Pakistanis flee the Bajaur tribal district after fierce clashes between soldiers and suspected militants in August. Pakistani troops backed by helicopter gunships killed 60 Taliban and Al-Qaeda militants near the Afghan border, just days after the Marriott Hotel was bombed.

PESHAWAR, Pakistan: A full-scale battle in a remote corner of Pakistan is shaping up to be a critical test of the military's determination to combat the country's militants, military and intelligence officials say.

The campaign, in the tribal area of Bajaur, has taken on new seriousness with the Marriott Hotel bombing in the capital, Islamabad, this weekend, which killed 53 people in one of the most devastating terrorist attacks in the country's history.

Some officials here see the Marriott bombing as, in effect, an extension of the battle in Bajaur, a strike by the militants deep into the heart of Pakistan and one meant at least in part to deter the government from pressing the campaign further.

"Bajaur is a litmus test," said one military official, who like several other security and military officials interviewed asked not to be identified because of the political nature of his remarks. "It is very, very important. Its success or failure could decide the fate of other tribal areas."

After Waziristan, Bajaur is perhaps the most significant stronghold of militants from the Taliban and Al Qaeda who have entrenched themselves in the tribal areas, officials say.

The Bajaur operation began haltingly in August and was aimed at forestalling what looked like the imminent fall of the government's regional headquarters in Khaar. The fight is now going full throttle, said several senior security and government officials, and includes the use of tanks and fighter planes by the Pakistani Army.

The militants are using everything they have to hold their ground, the officials said, adding that they have been surprised by the militants' resistance and the sophistication of their tactics, weapons and communications systems.

"They have good weaponry and a better communication system" than the Pakistani military, said one senior official.

"Even the sniper rifles they use are better than some of ours," the official said. "Their tactics are mind-boggling and they have defenses that would take us days to build. It does not look as though we are fighting a ragtag militia. They are fighting like an organized force."

One measure of the importance of the battle to the militants is that Bajaur has now become a magnet for militants who are flocking to the area from other tribal regions and even from across the border, in Afghanistan's eastern Kunar Province, to reinforce their comrades.

The influx has swelled the ranks of the foreign militants in Bajaur, who were previously thought to be few, catching many veterans of the civil-military establishment by surprise.

As the standoff and its significance have grown, the army has staked more of its resources and reputation on the outcome.

Past battles have left the Pakistani military bruised and wary of engaging the militants frontally. The army has lost hundreds of soldiers in the tribal areas since the American military drove the Taliban and Al Qaeda over the border from Afghanistan in 2001 and 2002.

Those losses and public opposition to civilian casualties have sapped the government's appetite for a big military campaign. Instead, the tendency has been to fight to a draw and then sue for peace, which the government and military have done through peace deals that critics say have left the militants stronger.

Now, government and security officials say they are determined to take the battle in Bajaur to what they call "its logical conclusion," meaning a defeat for the militants on the battlefield.

Whether they follow through on that commitment remains to be seen. Bush administration officials have grown increasingly skeptical this year of the Pakistani military's willingness to fight the militants.

The stated determination of Pakistani officials about the Bajaur campaign comes as Washington has pushed them to take bolder steps against the militants, and as the United States has carried out repeated strikes in Pakistan, inflaming Pakistani sensitivities over violations of sovereignty.

The Pakistani military, which has threatened to shoot at intruding American forces, seems increasingly eager now to show that it can handle the militants in the tribal areas on its own.

"I don't think the military will pull back," the military official said. "Our aims and objectives are very clear. We are going to uproot militants from this place, which is a major training ground and sanctuary for foreign militants."

"If we hit them there and uproot them from there, we will prove our point that ours is the most effective strategy, instead of hitting a compound in Waziristan and here and there," he added, referring to recent American strikes.

For now the Bajaur fighting appears to have disrupted or diverted the flow of Taliban fighters crossing into Afghanistan's Kunar Province, where, Western diplomats say, violence has dropped appreciably since the operation began.

Last week, Defense Secretary Robert Gates told reporters during a visit to the Afghan capital, Kabul, that the United States was "encouraged" by the Bajaur operation. Pakistani political leaders appeared to be showing "a change in their approach" toward combating the militants, one Pakistani official said. "They seem serious," he said.

A critical turning point seemed to arrive at a meeting in July between the leaders of the governing coalition and the chief of army staff, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, officials said. There, the general was given the full confidence of the government to tackle the problem of militants when and how he chose, they said.

The buildup of American pressure, in particular President George W. Bush's authorization in July for unilateral United States operations in Pakistan's tribal areas, combined with the support of the government, has made it possible for Kayani to move more decisively, the officials said.

As such, the Bajaur operation has taken on vital importance for the military, not only for what it means for the fight against the insurgency but also for restoring the military's credibility at home and abroad.

Failure, or an abandonment of the operation midway through it, could be disastrous, they warned.

"Such a situation would not only embolden the militants," said one official. "It would give the cynics in Washington and Kabul an excuse to point to Pakistan's lack of ability and political will to fight this war."