Pakistani Army struggles to make headway against a determined enemy

Posted in Terrorism , Pakistan | 11-Nov-08 | Author: Jane Perlez and Pir Zubair Sha| Source: International Herald Tribune

Pakistani soldiers walk down a road in Loe Sam town in Bajaur tribal region.

LOE SAM, Pakistan: When Major Ijaz Hussain and nearly 150 soldiers were dispatched to recapture this strategic junction from the Taliban in Pakistan's tribal belt this August, they had little idea what they were in for.

With scarce ammunition and little water in fierce heat, they fought the Taliban in close combat, but were quickly surrounded. Two convoys sent to rescue them were decimated by the enemy. Ordered to retreat, the survivors escaped under cover of night though maize fields in sloshing rain, evading Taliban pursuers and gunfire from government helicopters.

Three months after that debacle, the Pakistani Army finally controls Loe Sam in the Bajaur area of the tribal belt. But the Taliban lurk on the edges of the ruined village and their sniper fire echoes along the 12-kilometer, or eight-mile, road that leads here.

What began as a simple incursion has now become the most sustained campaign by the Pakistani Army against the Taliban and its Qaeda backers since Pakistan allied itself with the United States in 2001.

The struggle for Bajaur is one of the biggest battles against the militants on either side of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. President-elect Barack Obama has pledged to make the conflicts in Afghanistan and Pakistan a top priority. The Bajaur campaign serves as a cautionary tale of the formidable challenge that even a full-scale military effort faces in flushing the Taliban and Al Qaeda from rugged northern Pakistan. Officials here describe the area as the keystone of an arch of militancy that stretches across the semi-autonomous tribal regions and into Pakistan proper.

The Pakistani Army sent 2,400 troops here in early September to take on a Taliban force that has now drawn militants from across the region, as well as a flow of fighters from Afghanistan.

Like all Pakistani soldiers, the troops sent here were trained and indoctrinated to fight in conventional warfare against India, considered the nation's permanent enemy; they were barely trained in counterinsurgency strategy and tactics.

To save Loe Sam, the army has destroyed it. The military arranged for a two-day visit for foreign journalists to Khar, the capital of Bajaur, and to Loe Sam to show what the military describes as its resolve in routing the Taliban.

The shops and homes of the 7,000 people who lived here are a heap of gray rubble, blown to bits by the army. Scraps of bedding and broken electric fans lie strewn in the dirt. As army helicopters and artillery barrages targeted militant strongholds around the junction, people fled across the border to Afghanistan or are among the estimated 200,000 displaced living in tent camps or with relatives in their own country.

The scorched-earth campaign has been necessary, military officials said, to root out a well-armed and well-entrenched Taliban force, whose tactics and sophistication were underestimated from the moment Hussain and his men first arrived.

The army and the Frontier Corps, the paramilitary force responsible for security in the tribal areas, say they have suffered 83 deaths and 300 wounded soldiers since early August. That compares with 61 dead for coalition forces in all of Afghanistan in the first four months of 2008.

At some point, probably over a period of several years but no official could explain exactly when, the militants dug a series of well-engineered, interconnecting tunnels behind the mud-walled family compounds lining the road from Khar to Loe Sam.

The military now believes such tunnels lace much of Bajaur where the militants still control large swathes of territory, said General Tariq Khan, commander of the Frontier Corps and leader of this campaign. Along the route to Loe Sam, the army had dropped 500-pound bombs to break the tunnels apart. Some of them are a kilometer long and deep enough to store caches of weapons, Kahn said.

Many of them were constructed as escape routes to dry river beds. Some were built with respiratory systems so that fighters could stay there for long stretches.

"These were not for ordinary battle," Kahn said in an interview in his headquarters in Peshawar, the provincial capital of the North West Frontier Province.

The militants seized on Bajaur some time ago because of its strategic location beside Kunar Province in Afghanistan, where U.S. and coalition forces are fighting the Taliban.

The area serves as a gateway to Kunar for Taliban fighters from other parts of the tribal belt, particularly Waziristan, to attack U.S. forces. Bajaur provides access south to Peshawar, one of the nation's major cities that is under threat from the Taliban. And it offers a land bridge to more settled parts of Pakistan, like the Swat Valley to the east, where the army also is struggling to contain the Taliban.

The fight is now a test of the strength between the army and Tehrik-i-Taliban, the umbrella group of Pakistani Taliban, which is allied to al Qaeda, Khan said.

The army will fight until it has captured all of Bajaur, Khan said. "Provided they maintain momentum," he said, the army expects to show significant gains by mid-November.

Arabs, Uzbeks, Tajiks and Afghans form the hard core of their opponents. They enlist young local men who join the militants for money and the prestige of sitting with a rifle in a pickup.

U.S. officials have said they believe some important Qaeda leaders are dug into Bajaur. In 2006, an American missile attack by a pilotless aircraft on the village of Damadola was aimed at killing the deputy to Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri.

Villagers in Mohmand, adjacent to Bajaur, claimed to have seen Zawahiri in the northern part of Mohmand in September when he arrived with his wife to inspect a house, stayed the night, then left in a convoy of vehicles.

It was in response to the 2006 strike that the Taliban started taking over Bajaur, said the government's senior civilian official in Bajaur, Shafirullah Khan.

Their methods were ruthless. Home owners were coerced or paid to allow the Taliban to use their premises as bases, Khan said. Those who resisted were killed, often by beheading.

A well-known Afghan fighter, Ziar ur Rehman, directed and fortified the operation with his own men, bringing hundreds of fighters from Afghanistan last November, Khan said.

By December, the Taliban had pushed government-armed local tribesmen, known as levees, out of their checkpoint at Loe Sam. By June, the Taliban had destroyed more than half the 72 checkpoints in Bajaur.

"We thought the people in Loe Sam would come out and support the levees," Khan said. "But they did not. The locals were scared."

The Taliban disrupted the workings of the civilian government, staging a suicide bomb attack against a truck carrying the salaries for teachers and robbing a major bank, he said.

But it took the fall of Loe Sam itself and Hussain's failed effort to retake it on Aug. 6 to wake up the government and the army to just how strong the militants had become.

The two convoys sent to extract Hussain's forces were brutally attacked from the tunnels. In the failed recapture attempt, 29 Frontier Corps soldiers were killed, and others severely wounded, Colonel Shahbaz Rasul said.

Panic spread. A few days later, the crenellated fortress walls of the government compound in Khar were in danger of being overrun. More than 300 of the government allied local tribesmen protecting the compound fled, leaving 35, Khan said.

Interviews with army officers, and a ride under army escort along the road from Khar to Loe Sam, revealed that even now the soldiers were, in many instances, unprepared to fight a fast-moving, highly motivated and well-disguised insurgent force.

"One of the basic problems of our fighting system is the intelligence failures," said Khan. "Aggressive patrolling should have been done. It wasn't done."

Khan and other military officials complained that they did not have the proper weapons and equipment to take on the militants, including radar and real-time intelligence. The Taliban, meanwhile, had heavy weapons and communications systems that could disguise their whereabouts, as well as the ability to home in on army radios.

Lieutenant Colonel Javed Baluch and his soldiers were first dispatched to Bajaur in early September. Even the terrain surprised them. The khaki colored earth dipped and swerved every 25 meters; crevices suddenly became hillocks, scattered clumps of trees and bushes concealed snipers. The militants were king because the civilians had been ordered out of the area by the army in early August, in anticipation of the fight.

"The enemy had a lot of advantage," Baluch said. "They knew the area completely. We were told we would meet foreign fighters and local fighters supporting them. The resistance unfolded differently."

His mission was to clear Taang Khatta, a place thick with the mud-walled compounds occupied by the militants. It was a spot where the Frontier Corps forces had faced stiff resistance in August.

On the first day his soldiers advanced along the road on foot to Taang Khatta, they were ambushed, he said. The insurgents were invisible, hidden behind the thick mud walls of the compounds, their snipers' rifles poking through narrow slits.

"Small arms have no effect on the walls, and that's what we were carrying," Baluch said. "We did not know where to fire back."

The attack came from three directions, but the guerrillas made one mistake. "When they shouted, 'God is Great,' it was helpful to us," Colonel Baluch said. The voices gave away their location.

The colonel sent four men around the back of one compound to throw grenades over the wall, he said. As seven or eight guerrillas garbed in black fled out the front, his soldiers attacked.

In the end, it took five days and the loss of four men to conquer Taang Khatta, a mere bend in the road, just up the road from the Khar headquarters.

Still, he was lucky, he said. The push to capture another tiny place, Nisarabad, farther up the road, left 12 soldiers dead and 46 wounded.

The final assault on Loe Sam was led by Major Anwar Saeed, 37, who was experienced in fighting the Taliban in North Waziristan, the center of the most hardened fighters in the tribal belt.

It was finally captured on Oct. 21, and destroyed in the process.

"When you capture a compound, the adjacent one becomes a fire fight," he said. "They were fighting and firing, and throwing grenades at us from 25 meters away."

Yes, he knew the people who had lived here were now bereft. "I know many have suffered because of our actions," he said. "But the government is going to take care of them."

The army officer in charge of the operation at the Khar headquarters, Colonel Nauman Saeed, said he believed the people of Bajaur supported the fight to vanquish the Taliban.

In Peshawar, however, some of the store owners from Loe Sam whose property was crushed said there were limits to their patience.

They had heard no word about their return or reconstruction, said Haji Shakir, the owner of two stores in Loe Sam, as he sat on the floor of a crowded house with a group of fellow store keepers, clutching the account books that he had escaped with.

"If the government doesn't rebuild, we will be thieves, suicide bombers, we will be forced to do these things," he said.

Khan, the chief government representative in Bajaur, said he had funds, provided by the U.S. Agency for International Development, for rebuilding. But he did not know when it would begin.

Financial well being was not the only worry of the displaced. Many said they were angered by the high number of civilian deaths, particularly as they were fleeing in August and September when jet fighters and helicopter gunships were attacking Taliban redoubts.

The military said last week that 95 civilians had been killed in the Bajaur conflict, but the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan said that number seemed low. There is no reliable count, because the commission was barred from investigating.

Similarly, there is little agreement about how many militants the army has killed. The army said 1,500. But two officers, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were contradicting their superiors, said that number appeared excessive. One army captain involved in the fighting said 300 seemed closer.

While the resistance had been reduced on the flat land, one thing was certain. As the military readies to fight the militants in the mountainous areas of Mehmund and Charmang, deeper in Bajaur, progress will be more difficult. In his wood paneled office, Colonel Saeed said he was deep in a classic guerrilla conflict.

In September, he said, Rehman, the Taliban leader at the center of the Bajaur resistance, had replenished his forces with 950 more men from Afghanistan.

"You keep killing them," Colonel Saeed said, "but you still have them around."