Originally Published 2004-04-13 06:11:02 Published on Apr 13, 2004
The story began on March 18th, when Pakistan¿s leader Gen. Pervez Musharraf casually mentioned in an interview with CNN¿s Aaron Brown that it is likely that Pakistani troops have surrounded a ¿High Value Target¿ in the tribal ¿agency¿ of South Waziristan. Some enterprising Pakistani ¿intelligence official¿ leaked to the eager
Gunfight at the Waziristan Corral
Pervez Musharraf casually mentioned in an interview with CNN'sAaron Brown that it is likely that Pakistani troops have surroundeda "High Value Target" in the tribal "agency" of South Waziristan.Some enterprising Pakistani "intelligence official" leaked to theeager journalists that the person encircled could be Aymanal-Zawahiri, the number two man and the purported "brains-trust" ofAl Qaeda. Within hours, an entire army of international andPakistani media landed up in the town nearest to the fighting,Wana, in the South Waziristan autonomous agency. After many days ofcontradictory reports, the whole operation ended like a damp squib,with no "top terrorist" being apprehended or killed and thePakistan Army having to meekly return to the barracks in return forthe tribals' release of hostages.

Firstly, as a military operation, it is clear that this has been adisaster for the Pakistan Army. From the beginning, the PakistanArmy had tried to avoid a direct confrontation with the "foreignfighters". Since January, the Musharraf government had tried tohold a "jirga" or a meeting of the tribal and clan heads toconvince them to negotiate with the chieftain who was hosting thesefighters to give them up. The elders came up with the idea of usinga Tribal "Lashkar" or irregular forces made of locals to hunt downthe suspects, but that went nowhere. On March 17th, the localadministration decided to send in about 700 Frontier Corpsparamilitary troops to confront the fighters holed up in a villagecalled Kalosha, near Wana. But apparently a smaller number ofheavily armed locals and foreign fighters ambushed the governmenttroops, killing at least 15 and taking dozens of paramilitaries andcivil officials hostage. After this, regular Pakistan Army troopswere dispatched to cordon off the area, but the militants were ableto break the cordon and escape with the vehicles and arms belongingto government forces.

The pitched battles continued for a few more days, with thePakistan Army using attack helicopters and long-range artillery tobombard militant positions. The Pakistan Army even resorted todemolishing the houses of some locals to dissuade the rebels. Butthis move backfired with the fighting spreading from SouthWaziristan to other tribal agencies like Kurram and NorthWaziristan. The rebel leader even sent a message to a Peshawarbased journalist that there will be no surrender. On March 26th,the bodies of eight Pakistani soldiers, who were ambushed a fewdays ago, were discovered. They were found killed, execution style.Perhaps, this unnerved the Pakistani high command enough to startback channel negotiations with the fighters. Finally, in return forthe release of all hostages, the Pakistani authorities agreed tocall off the operation and ordered the troops back to thebarracks. 

The upshot of this operation, which cost dozens of lives on bothsides, is unclear. It appears that the situation in the troubledarea has not substantially changed from what it used to be beforethe operation. Despite comical announcements of "top Al-Qaedafigures" being killed and subsequent withdrawals by the Pakistanimilitary spokesman, no top Al Qaeda figure has been arrested orkilled. Even the so-called Uzbek militia leader was nowhere to befound, let alone the "Intelligence Chief" of Al-Qaeda who turnedout to be a local mole.

It is interesting to fathom the motivations behind this operation.Why would Gen.Musharraf send a ragtag bunch of unprepared troopsinto a redoubt of some of the most experienced and ferociousguerilla fighters in the world? One simple explanation is the "Wagthe Dog" idea. Gen.Musharraf is usually good at arranging forspectacular arrests of "top" Al Qaida figures timed to coincidewith his visits to the US or the visits of American officials toPakistan. This time around, this operation coincided with the visitof Secretary of State Colin Powell to Islamabad. Another factorcould be a possible attempt by the wily General to change thesubject. The Powell visit had put a fresh focus on the A.Q.Khannuclear proliferation episode. What better way to avoid theembarrassing nuclear discussion than by displaying images ofPakistani troops going after "terrorists."

Another curious aspect is the identity of these "terrorists." Mostpress reports indicate that non-Pashtun elements associated withthis operation are some Uzbeks and Chechens who had been living inthe general area for many years, some going back to the days of theanti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan. This means that these people areunlikely to have been strangers to the powerful Afghan desk of theInter-Services Intelligence (ISI). It is likely that the ISI wouldhave, at one time, hosted these fighters. The area that saw theheaviest fighting was also less than ten miles from a big PakistanArmy base. It is unfathomable that the Pakistani troops suddenlybecame aware of the existence of these fighters. This also callsthe timing of this operation into question.

But the rapid denouement of the operation must be the mosttroubling aspect of this operation for Gen.Musharraf. Many crediblereports talk of wholesale switching of sides by the Frontier Corpssoldiers. In addition, tribal antipathy to the Pakistani armyspread to other agencies as well. There is also a report that said"150 soldiers of the army and paramilitary forces refused to takepart in the action, including at least one colonel and a major." In this context, the audiotape attributed to Ayman al-Zawahiricalling for Pakistani troops to overthrow Gen. Musharraf must ringalarm-bells at top levels of Pakistani administration, includingwith the General himself. One a side note, the role played by thecommander of the Peshawar based XI Corps of the Pakistan Army,Lt.Gen. Safdar Hussain, a Punjabi with close ties to the US as wellas experience in the ISI must have caught the eyes of Pakistanwatchers. Cynics might note that as a Corps Commander, with ties toAmerica, links to the ISI and a track record of botching up amilitary campaign by spinning an abject surrender as "missionaccomplished" at Wana, Lt.Gen. Hussain has the right credentials tobe a future leader of Pakistan.

In the ultimate analysis, it appears that Gen. Musharraf might haveoutmaneuvered himself by ordering this operation. He might havewanted to stage a simple show-and-tell show for Secretary Powelland display a few Chechens or Uzbeks as "top" Al-Qaeda figures togain some brownie points with the Americans, but it has backfiredbadly. There are real doubts about the loyalty of Pakistani troops,who are heavily islamicized at the lower levels. The many tribalgroups are also up in arms against the Pakistan Army intervention,making future Wana like operation more difficult. But the biggestnegative fallout of Wana for Gen. Musharraf might be from theAmericans. Reports say that American forces were closely assistingthe Pakistanis during this operation. The magnitude of thePakistani failure is likely to have sealed the deal in manyAmerican planners' minds about the ability and willingness of thePakistan Army to fight the Al-Qaida/Taliban fighters. Should theAmericans see a real "High Value Target" in Pakistan the next time,they might not wait for Lt.Gen. Hussain's ragtag bunch of switchhitters to arrive before taking action on their own. That aloneshould give Gen.Musharraf sleepless nights.

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