Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The next phase of counter-militancy
Wednesday, November 25, 2009
Dr Maleeha Lodhi

The writer is a former envoy to the US and the UK, and a former editor of The News.

With the first phase of the military offensive to clear militants from South Waziristan now nearing completion, the counter-militancy campaign is expected to transition into the next, more critical phase. This will entail steps to ensure that the gains that have been made are sustainable. It will also mean wrestling with the challenges that have emerged from a remarkably expeditious operation.

Among the most pressing challenges is to stem the wave of violent reprisals that has struck the country and turned Peshawar into a battle zone. Daily bombings, which have already disrupted people's lives, can strain the public consensus against militancy and shake the public's resolve to fight it.

Pursuing the Tehrik-e-Taliban (TTP) leaders and fighters who seem to have dispersed into neighbouring Agencies means that the military campaign has now expanded to parts of Orakzai. As militants are using the access into Khyber to unleash a region of terror on Peshawar, "siege" operations are also planned here to restrict and neutralise the movement of militants. Two more Agencies are therefore expected in the next phase to see selective and targeted actions.

What will also be critical in the months ahead are post-conflict efforts that insure that the area can be held and an environment inhospitable to the return of militants is established. Although the military presence will be retained, over time a gradual de-induction of forces will depend on the Frontier Corps being able to assume security responsibilities along with the revival of the traditional political agent-tribal compact.

These will eventually be the exit tickets for the army. The sooner the civil administration can be reconstituted with local support, the easier it will be to start pulling out regular forces. This will be vital to avoid the troops becoming mired in a war of attrition or an unceasing fire-fight.

The South Waziristan operation has proceeded more speedily and with fewer casualties than was anticipated. Security forces secured much of the area within a month of launching the action. The militants have been driven out of their bases, their training centres dismantled and their sanctuaries eliminated.

Two of Operation Rah-e-Nijat's three core objectives have almost been achieved: re-establishing the state's writ in a longstanding no-go area and dismantling the command-and-control infrastructure of the TTP. The third objective of creating space for the political authorities in partnership with the local tribes to establish durable control remains an imposing task for the future.

Two elements of the military and political strategy have especially helped in attaining the stated objectives. The first is the "ridgeline approach" that was followed. This meant advancing troops avoided the main roads and instead focused on dominating the heights to secure the valleys – a tactic that caught the militants by surprise. This was buttressed by the reconfiguration of C-130 aircraft with surveillance eye-in-the sky capabilities to ensure accurate intelligence.

The second key factor was that the North Waziristan chapter of the TTP kept away from the battle in the south. Throughout the duration of the offensive in South Waziristan, there was not a single incident of hostility in the North. If that had happened it would have greatly complicated and distracted from the effort in the South.

As in Swat, another two key factors, proved to be decisive: unstinting public and media support for the military action as well as the evacuation of local residents from the area (300,000 inhabitants fled the battle area), which in turn allowed a sustained air and artillery campaign to be undertaken.

The toughest resistance was encountered around and in Kotkai on the eastern axis (leading up to Sararogha) in the three-pronged operation. This was the base from where the militants trained and launched suicide bombers. Sararogha served as the nerve centre of the TTP and their foreign allies.

Meanwhile, the bulk of training centres were discovered and destroyed in Kamigarum on the western axis. The multi-directional strategy helped to destroy the infrastructure of terrorism across a vast swathe of territory and also to establish control in a relatively short period.

The onset of winter, when traditionally two-thirds of the inhabitants of the Mehsud area seasonally migrate to escape the harsh weather and seek employment in the adjoining settled areas of the NWFP, will be a factor that will likely facilitate the campaign to clear the remaining pockets of resistance.

The skeptical view that the operation has made modest progress as it has only scattered the Taliban overlooks and minimises the fact that the militants are on the run, their capabilities have been degraded and their bases and freedom of movement sharply restricted. Their main training, command and communication centres have been neutralised. This means that while the militants are in hiding their effectiveness has been substantially reduced.

TTP spokesmen have declared that their fighters have avoided engaging the army to begin a guerrilla campaign later. This claim is contradicted by the fact that the heavy weapons and large amounts of ammunition that have been left behind suggest a scramble, not a planned retreat.

Plans already in play to assault the militants' logistics routes in Khyber Agency and mount military pressure in the region around the Tirah valley, lower Kurram and Orakzai are aimed at tightening the noose around the Taliban believed to be hiding there.

As this campaign proceeds, it is imperative that the military efforts are swiftly followed by a political drive to tackle the aftermath of the operation. This means dealing effectively with the administrative, reconstruction and development aspects of the post-conflict challenges.

In this regard the experience in Swat has been less than edifying. While the clear-and-hold phases have proceeded as smoothly as could be expected, the build-and-sustain efforts have been slow, faltering and thus far incoherent.

Even as the international community has expressed a commitment to come forth with assistance in this regard, the government has yet to even complete its "damage needs assessment" report that can serve as a credible plan to elicit support from donors. This means that the completion of the "post-conflict needs assessment" (dealing with governance issues) will be further delayed.

These delays do not inspire confidence at home and abroad about the official ability to deal with the immediate post operation challenges much less in addressing the longer-term governance architecture without which the stabilisation of the area cannot be placed on a sustainable basis.

If addressing post-conflict issues in Swat are proving so challenging for the civilian authorities, stabilising South Waziristan, once the military operation ends, will be infinitely harder. Rebuilding where extensive damage has occurred, as well as enabling the safe repatriation and rehabilitation of displaced people, will be among the urgent tasks.

The battle has therefore to be fought on many fronts, and it is the government that must step up and take responsibility to establish the structures for governance and the means to deliver services to the inhabitants of these areas if conditions are to be created to prevent the return of militancy. Military action, after all, is only one prong in an optimal policy response.

Looking ahead, the two key factors that will help determine the longer-term sustainability of the military gains in South Waziristan are unrelenting and vigorous efforts to mobilise public support for the anti-militancy effort and putting in place the governance structures that are seen as legitimate as well as responsive to the needs of the people living there.


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