Draining the Waziristan swamp in Pakistan

Sunday Times:

IN North Waziristan, the wild border land that America hopes will be Osama Bin Laden’s graveyard, the normally busy roads are almost deserted and the fear is pervasive. Army helicopters sweep the valleys at night hunting for Al-Qaeda militants as troops and gunmen exchange artillery and rocket fire.

America and Britain regard this usually autonomous tribal area - where Bin Laden is long believed to have been hiding - as the logistics centre of Islamic terrorist attacks around the world.

President Pervez Musharraf sees it as the centre of a campaign to “Talibanise” Pakistan. Spurred on by Washington, he has abandoned a truce with Waziristan’s Islamist guerrillas and ordered his army to root them out.

There are believed to be about 8,000 gunmen – a mix of foreign Al-Qaeda volunteers, Afghan Taliban, Pakistani Islamists and local Waziris whose families have for centuries fought off any attempt to impose outside rule on this area. In modern times, even map-makers have been shot to hide the region’s mysteries from the outside world.

Last week soldiers sealed all the roads into Miran Shah, the provincial capital, occupied the hills around it and fired the first artillery salvo in what Musharraf’s many critics have called a war on his own people.

On Friday morning the army moved into parts of Miran Shah itself after militants blew up government buildings overnight. Most of the 60,000 townspeople are feared trapped, but hundreds of families have fled their mud homes in villages nearby and headed east for the sanctuary of Bannu, a town in the neighbouring North West Frontier province.

I watched last week as some of the 80,000 troops deployed in Waziristan dug in alongside the highway outside Mirali, a small town 10 miles east of Miran Shah. Almost all the checkpoints on this stretch of narrow road were empty. Three lay in rubble because the militants had blown them up. No troops drove along the road. They shuttled to the nearby Afghan border by helicopter.

Occasionally a civilian vehicle appeared, laden with men, women and children and all they could bring with them as they fled – a few cots, a goat or two, a cow and some cooking utensils.

Raza Khan, 45, a farmer, lived with his family in Hakim Khel, a group of five villages with a population of more than 2,500 on the outskirts of Miran Shah. On Thursday afternoon he gathered his nine children and left. All the villages in his area had been all but abandoned, he told me when I found them on the road.

“Anyone who has a little cash is leaving. People can’t sleep in the night. The fighters work during the night. They are always on the move. When they attack the army from any area, the army shell that area. And it kills and injures innocent people,” he said.

...

A mile or so from the Mirali checkpoint, four Uzbeks – regarded around here as a byword for Al-Qaeda – wielded powerful walkie-talkies inside a parked white Toyota saloon. One of them kept his face hidden when my driver approached them. Further up the road we saw two more Uzbeks using walkie-talkies.

...

Sources in the Pakistani army said: “There has to be a fight. There is no other option. It’s bad, but we have to fight.”

The dangers are only too apparent. Taliban forces in South Waziristan have occupied hilltops and set up their own checkpoints to cut off army supply lines and to prevent government troops taking control.

As the clashes around Miran Shah grew more frequent on Friday night, there were Taliban rocket attacks on new army checkpoints on the main exit routes from the town and looters seized 30 computers from offices and a girls’ school.

Despite the crisis, Waziristan’s most lucrative activity – smuggling – is thriving. The only lorries I saw on the roads were laden with cattle, apparently destined illicitly for Afghanistan. I was told that a local tribal official collects £75 per truck for facilitating the movement of cattle across the border.

Pakistan needs to increase its force to space ratio in this area if it is going to deny the space to its enemies. If they did that and permitted US and NATO to attack the Taliban and al Qaeda forces when they are spotted, the Paks would lose fewer forces and the enemy would lose its ability to control the space.

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