In October 2009, after approximately four months of preparations, Pakistan’s armed forces launched a highly anticipated ground offensive against Taliban militants in South Waziristan Agency of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). The objectives of the mission, called Rah-e-Nijat (Path to Deliverance), are to clear the area of terrorists and militants and stabilize the region.[1] The current offensive in South Waziristan marks the largest military operation to date in both FATA and the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP).

Pakistan’s government considers South Waziristan the primary source of recent terrorist violence targeting the state. It alleges that 80% of terrorist attacks in Pakistan have been organized by militants from Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), a conglomeration of Pakistani Taliban groups headquartered in South Waziristan.[2] Government officials finally came to the conclusion that it was essential to destroy the TTP network, which is currently led by Hakimullah Mehsud.[3]

This article will offer an account of the offensive thus far, identify its successes and failures, and finally look at the government’s strategy moving forward.

The Offensive Begins
South Waziristan, spread over 2,419 square kilometers of vast and rugged terrain, has been under the effective control of Pakistani Taliban militants since 2003-2004. As a result, Pakistan’s government does not have credible intelligence about the strength of local and foreign militants based in the area. Pakistan Army chief, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, once described the tribal agency as an intelligence “black hole.”[4] At the start of the offensive, however, one government official estimated that approximately 1,500 foreign militants were hiding in South Waziristan, mixed in with an estimated total of 10,000 Taliban fighters.[5]

For weeks before the start of the ground offensive on October 17, the military softened the militants’ positions through airstrikes from fighter jets and helicopter gunships, in addition to long-range artillery cannons. The airstrikes played a crucial role in destroying the militants’ resolve. Military officials later admitted that they had exhausted their target list as all known militant hideouts had been bombed.[6]

Early on October 17, regular troops from the Pakistan Army and paramilitary soldiers from the Frontier Corps mobilized from their bases under the cover of darkness and began the ground offensive. Military authorities claimed that 30,000 troops were part of the assault. Some reports, however, said a total of 60,000 soldiers were involved, including 45,000 combat troops and 15,000 supporting troops.[7]

The military initially targeted Makeen, Spin Kamar and Ladha, all located within the Mehsud tribal areas. The ground offensive followed three routes into Mehsud territory. One route traveled northwest from the military fort of Jandola to the TTP stronghold of Srarogha via Spinkai Raghzai and Kotkai.[8] A second route traveled northeast from Wana and Shakai toward Sarwekai onward to Kaniguram and Ladha.[9] The third route left the garrison town of Razmak in North Waziristan Agency and headed south to one of the major militant strongholds at Makeen.[10]

The November 3 fall of Srarogha, where Baitullah Mehsud, the former head of the TTP, signed his first peace accord with the government in February 2005 marked a major setback for the TTP. It was in Srarogha that Baitullah spent most of his time plotting attacks, convening meetings and speaking to the media.[11] Zangara, the village where Baitullah was killed by a U.S. aerial drone in August 2009, is also in the Srarogha area, as is his ancestral village. Prior to Srarogha’s fall, the TTP also lost Kotkai, the village of current TTP leader Hakimullah Mehsud and his cousin, Qari Hussain, the latter of whom regularly trains suicide bombers for TTP operations.

On November 4, the military announced that they had entered Ladha town, considered the TTP’s most important stronghold. Shortly after, Makeen was taken. By mid-November, the militants had lost almost all their strongholds. Srarogha, Kaniguram, Kotkai, Spinkay Raghzai, Nano, Sherwangai, Shelwestai, Nawazkot, Ladha and Makeen have all been secured by the military. The military then announced that the first phase of operations was complete, as troops had reached all three previously designated targets: Makeen, Srarogha and Ladha.[12]

Also important was the fall of Kaniguram. Military authorities believe that most of the foreign militants fighting in Pakistan were entrenched in Kaniguram, in particular Uzbek militants affiliated with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. Although the military insisted that Uzbek fighters and other foreign militants resisted the advancing soldiers, no arrests were reported and no bodies were displayed to members of the media who were regularly flown in on military helicopters to survey the offensive. On a few occasions, however, media teams did report that rockets were fired at the troops, forcing the military to evacuate television crews to safer locations.

Overall, there is little evidence that heavy fighting occurred during the entire operation because it appears that most militants fled in the face of the government advance. Nevertheless, it was impossible for the media to independently confirm both the military and Taliban claims of casualties due to the lack of access to the conflict zone, disrupted lines of communication and the dislocation of almost all of the civilian population from the area.

Successes and Failures
On December 9, the Pakistan Army’s Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) released up-to-date figures on the offensive’s successes. It claimed that 589 Taliban militants and 79 soldiers had died in action so far.[13] The ISPR also said that Pakistan’s security forces seized a number of weapons, including RPG-7 rockets, anti-aircraft machineguns and SPG-9 rounds.[14] The military said it discovered 22 interlinked tunnels dug into the mountainside and stocked with arms and ammunition.[15] Moreover, the military had taken control of all the important towns in South Waziristan where the TTP previously held power.

At some locations, the TTP’s retreat did not appear to be well organized considering that militants left behind heavy weapons and even cooked food. Separately, security forces said that they found passports of two foreigners in Shelwestai and Sherwangai villages. One passport belonged to Said Bahaji, a German national of Moroccan descent who is considered a member of the Hamburg Cell that was involved in the 9/11 attacks on the United States. The second passport belonged to Raquel Burgos Garcia, a woman from Spain, who converted to Islam and married a Moroccan, Amer Azizi; Azizi was part of Spain’s Abu Dahdah al-Qa`ida cell and was active in sending Spanish militants to training camps in Afghanistan.[16] The discovery of the passports raised prospects that Said Bahaji and other members of al-Qa`ida could be hiding in South Waziristan or the adjacent tribal areas.

The TTP, however, rejected the government’s claims. In addition to disputing government casualty reports, TTP spokesman Azam Tariq insisted that the militant group executed a “tactical retreat” from their strongholds in South Waziristan and assured that the group’s strength was largely intact.[17] Tariq said that the TTP was prepared for a long war and contended that the Pakistan Army was only occupying the major roads, while the militants were entrenched in the surrounding forests and mountains.[18] Lending credence to the TTP’s claims about a tactical retreat, the government has so far failed to kill or arrest any senior TTP leaders. Furthermore, even by accepting the military’s claims of 589 Taliban fighters killed, it is clear that the majority of fighters—numbering in the thousands—were able to escape and will likely continue to pose a threat.

It is not the first time that leading militants have escaped major military operations and months of aerial bombardment. The security forces’ inability to obtain timely intelligence and capture or kill militant commanders has a pattern in all of their military operations. Furthermore, the current offensive did not benefit from the element of surprise, as it was clear that the military would launch the operation before the winter so that gains could be made by the time of the first snowfall. As a result, the militants were able to flee from South Waziristan before the start of the offensive. The snow began to fall on December 9, making the movement of troops toward the militants’ mountain redoubt difficult. Outnumbered and outgunned, the militants retreated by replicating the tactics used by the Afghan Taliban, deciding to employ guerrilla tactics to harass the advancing troops and attack them at remote outposts.

Hakimullah Mehsud has threatened retaliation against the military once heavy snows begin in South Waziristan in January.[19] The military, however, appears to be prepared for the changing weather conditions. The troops deployed to the combat zone have already been replaced by fresh contingents.[20] More helicopters, heavy weapons, night-vision goggles and other equipment, some of it provided by the United States, have been sent to the troops. The soldiers are also benefiting from jamming devices that have been installed to protect military convoys from improvised explosive devices.

It is clear that Hakimullah, Qari Hussain, Waliur Rahman and Azam Tariq are still alive, as they have spoken to reporters in recent weeks.[21] This also shows that they have access to telephone lines and are therefore unlikely to still be in the Mehsud tribal territory in South Waziristan, considering that the phone lines are no longer operational in the area. [22]Current speculation only places Waliur Rahman, the TTP commander for South Waziristan, and his fighters in the Mehsud area, where he is organizing attacks against security forces.

It is possible that Hakimullah and his commanders could be seeking shelter in North Waziristan, where another Pakistani Taliban commander, Hafiz Gul Bahadur, maintains control. Hakimullah and his commanders are unlikely to be in South Waziristan’s Wana area, where Maulvi Nazir and militants from the Ahmadzai Wazir tribe operate; these non-TTP militants are likely hesitant to allow TTP fighters into their area due to fears that it would destabilize their own towns by drawing in the Pakistan Army. Hakimullah could also have found refuge in Orakzai Agency, an agency he used to command for the TTP until the death of Baitullah Mehsud. Orakzai remains a TTP stronghold where militants from Waziristan, Khyber and Dara Adam Khel also operate and which serves as a base for planning attacks against Pakistan’s urban centers. Some TTP commanders and fighters are reported to have entered Kurram Agency, and the decision by Pakistan’s military to send fighter jets and helicopter gunships to central Kurram was apparently taken following intelligence reports about the concentration of militants in the area.

The TTP has retaliated by carrying out suicide bombings and other attacks in Pakistan’s urban centers, and tasking its affiliates in Bajaur, Mohmand, Hangu, Kurram and elsewhere to launch fresh attacks on the security forces to put pressure on the government and influence public opinion. They are also launching sporadic hit-and-run attacks against Pakistan’s military in South Waziristan.

The Offensive Going Forward
The Pakistan government’s overall strategy in South Waziristan is not clear. Initially, it was to eliminate the TTP leadership and capture the militants’ strongholds in South Waziristan. Yet the military now plans on holding the areas it clears until the threat from the TTP is diminished. In fact, the mission has now become a counterinsurgency operation since the government plans on reviving the civil administration in the tribal agency. The military will also have to oversee the repatriation and screening of displaced tribal civilians to their villages, and manage rehabilitation and reconstruction work. As in Swat, where the government has been slow to revive the civil administration and reconstruction work has yet to begin in earnest, the situation is even more difficult in South Waziristan.

The second phase of military operations in South Waziristan is being presented as a clear and consolidation effort. The troops will be clearing militants from all captured territory, detaining suspects, searching for weapons, removing mines and demolishing the homes of Taliban members. The government is also planning on bringing the political administration back to the area, where it has been absent for years. It will take time for civil officials to take control from the military authorities, who are now in charge of the affairs in all tribal regions. There are plans to complete damage assessments so that tribal households affected by the fighting can be compensated. South Waziristan’s political administrator, Syed Shahab Ali Shah, promised that reconstruction and development work would begin once peace was restored. He also said that unemployed men would be recruited into the civil armed forces known as Khasadar and Levies to maintain security in the area.

Repair work on the Shakai-Kaniguram road and reconstruction of the Jandola-Srarogha road has reportedly started. Reconstruction of the roadways will facilitate the movement of troops and supplies, and enable the military to mobilize quickly in case the militants decide to launch a counteroffensive. Work on restoring the power transmission lines is also moving forward. Officials in the FATA political administration are planning to complete major repair work, restore civic services and revive the political administrative system in South Waziristan by April 2010, in time for the displaced Mehsud tribespeople to return to their villages from the neighboring districts of Tank and Dera Ismail Khan.

The third phase will include corrective political steps. Efforts will be made to win the support of the Mehsud tribe against the militant groups. The military has said that it recognizes this cannot be accomplished until it demonstrates its commitment to overcoming militancy in the region. There is also a proposal to relocate the Mehsud tribe’s regional headquarters from Ladha to Makeen, which is located in the plains and can be better defended due to its proximity to the army garrison in Razmak. The fort in Ladha, which was destroyed by the militants, would also be rebuilt and used to station troops for their quick deployment to problem areas.

The government also plans on creating more administrative units to increase the state’s official presence and make the Mehsud territory governable. Another important and still divisive issue is the bifurcation of South Waziristan into two separate administrative divisions: the Mehsud and the Ahmadzai Wazir regions. The Mehsud tribe opposes this plan, and warns that it would create acrimony at a time when efforts are needed to bring the tribe into the mainstream.

The TTP retreated from its strongholds in South Waziristan in the face of the Pakistan military’s offensive. Its birthplace and headquarters are no longer under its control. The group is under pressure to launch the long guerrilla war that its commanders have threatened. Although the group still has armed units operating in Bajaur, Mohmand, Dara Adam Khel, Khyber, Orakzai, Kurram and other locations in the northwest, the government appears determined to weaken the militants’ overall network. The airstrikes and ground attacks by the military in lower and central Kurram and in Orakzai and Khyber are designed to destroy the TTP’s logistics and supply lines, in addition to killing relocated cadres who fled military action in South Waziristan.

The struggle, however, is far from over. The TTP has proved through its unrelenting campaign of terrorist attacks in Pakistani cities that its capabilities have not been fully degraded. Its success in hitting high-security military targets through complex suicide assaults proves that it can continue to launch operations despite losing its South Waziristan base. Moreover, the hardest part of the mission for Pakistan’s military has only just begun. Routing guerrilla forces with a modern army is not difficult; it is the “hold” phase of counterinsurgency that will prove the most challenging. The militants can now begin to practice the form of warfare at which they are best: sporadic guerrilla attacks against troops.

Moreover, for Pakistan’s government to be successful, it will need to move against TTP leaders and cadre in other tribal areas—where they are seeking shelter—which will stretch the military’s operations and make it more vulnerable to guerrilla attacks. Public support for military operations could fall if civilians feel increasingly insecure in their own homes, workplaces and cities. Public support for the army’s actions in the tribal areas, currently at 51%, could also be jeopardized if the military bows to the pressure of the United States and its NATO allies and takes action against the hideouts of predominately Afghan Taliban militants, such as in North Waziristan and Baluchistan. It is clear that Pakistan’s security forces are still in the early stages of their perennial fight against Islamist militants intent on weakening the state.

Rahimullah Yusufzai is a senior Pakistani journalist and political and security analyst presently working as Resident Editor of the English daily The News International in Peshawar. He has been reporting on Afghanistan and Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province, Federally Administered Tribal Areas, and Baluchistan since the early 1980s.


[1] Amir Wasim, “Zardari Writes to NWFP Governor,” Dawn, December 1, 2009.

[2] Sajjad Shaukat, “Rationale Behind Waziristan Operation,” Pakistan Observer, October 21, 2009; Khalid Qayum and Farhan Sharif, “Bombing Kills 19 in Peshawar as Pakistan Captures Taliban Bases,” Bloomberg, November 19, 2009.

[3]  For a profile of Hakimullah Mehsud, see Mukhtar A. Khan, “A Profile of the TTP’s New Leader: Hakimullah Mehsud,” CTC Sentinel 2:10 (2009).

[4] Ismail Khan, “Battle for Waziristan Looms,” Dawn, October 2, 2009.

[5] Zahid Hussain, “Laddah, Sararogha Cleared; Street Fighting in Makin,” Dawn, November 18, 2009.

[6] Ismail Khan, “Army Close to Winding Up First Phase of Operation,” Dawn, November 5, 2009.

[7] Maleeha Lodhi, “South Waziristan: Risks and Opportunity,” The News International, November 3, 2009.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Iqbal Khattak, “Taliban Good at Posturing, Poor at Resisting,” Daily Times, October 28, 2009; Iftikhar A. Khan, “Troops Enter Militants’ Srarogha Base,” Dawn, November 4, 2009.

[12] Muhammad Saleh Zaafir, “First Phase of SWA Operation Complete,” The News International, November 27, 2009.

[13] “589 Terrorists Killed So Far in Operation Rah-e-Nijat,” Frontier Post, December 10, 2009.

[14] Ibid.

[15] “22 Tunnels, 15 Bunkers in SWA Destroyed,” The Nation, December 4, 2009.

[16] Zahid Hussain, “Passport of 9/11 Conspirator Found in Waziristan,” Dawn, October 30, 2009. For details on Amer Azizi, see Fernando Reinares, “Jihadist Radicalization and the 2004 Madrid Bombing Network,” CTC Sentinel 2:11 (2009).

[17] Ivan Watson and Samson Desta, “Taliban Claim ‘Tactical Retreat’ in Pakistan,” CNN, November 4, 2009.

[18] Irfan Burki and Daud Khattak, “9 More Militants Killed in South Waziristan,” The News International, November 10, 2009.

[19] “We Will Give Effective Answer to Military Action in January – Hakimullah Mehsud,” Daily Jang, December

[20] Zaafir.

[21] Personal interview, Qari Hussain, TTP leader, December 5, 2009.

[22] Cell phones do not work in most tribal areas including North and South Waziristan because mobile phone service is not available there. Militants normally avoid using satellite phones as their signals are easily tracked and have led to repeated captures.

[23]  Hafiz Gul Bahadar, however, is not part of the TTP.

[24] South Waziristan is inhabited by two Pashtun tribes, Mehsud and Ahmadzai Wazir. The latter are not involved in the current fighting. The two tribes have traditionally been rivals and the government exploited this rivalry by renewing its peace deal with Taliban militants belonging to the Ahmadzai Wazir tribe living in the Wana and Shakai areas. The Mehsud-populated areas were targeted by the Pakistani military because the TTP had its headquarters there and drew most of its cadre from the Mehsud.

[25]  Khattak.

[26] It is the TTP’s standard policy to claim responsibility for attacks on security forces and police, but to remain silent when public places and civilians are attacked. Although Hakimullah denied TTP involvement in bombing marketplaces, there have been attacks claimed by his organization in the past against these types of targets.

[27] “Mehsuds Who Suffered Losses in Military Operations Will Be Compensated,” Radio Razmak, December 10, 2009.

[28] This poll is available at Gallop Pakistan, the findings of which were published on November 3, 2009.

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