Here’s what the relatively easy war looks like. Enemy lines are defined; there is a front and a rear; the enemy wears uniform. He is the “other”. You fight; you can win or lose. In any case, overt hostilities don’t go beyond a certain point. True, there can be a stalemate — World War I and the Iran-Iraq war being two good examples — but even in such cases, the front is always identifiable.
Not so with irregular war.
I was standing atop Manza Sar, overlooking Makeen, headquarters of the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan in South Waziristan. In the middle distance, southwest of Manza Sar, lay the destroyed compound of Baitullah Mehsud’s house. Just then, I heard the familiar crackling sound of an AK-47, four or five shots, single-round fire, followed by the rattle of a 12.7 mm machine gun.
A post nearby had been attacked. The attackers had sneaked up to it, fired a few shots, injured two jawans and extricated. Such attacks are sporadic but they take a heavy toll of troops. When the Army launched Operation Rah-e Nijat, it advanced on three axes and moved in to clear the area that forms the Makeen, Kaniguram/Ladha and Sararogha triangle. The area has been cleared, high ground captured, posts are maintained, known routes blocked. The inside of the triangle is secure for the most part, as are the southeastern and southwestern peripheries. But the northern tip remains unstable.
There are reasons for this. The inside of the triangle, with interlocking posts, is difficult to negotiate for the insurgents and extrication is more difficult. The southeastern and southwestern peripheries are relatively stable because it is difficult for the TTP to operate in the Wazir area of Maulvi Nazir. Makeen is just south of North Waziristan, the area where the TTP has relocated and which is a witches’ cauldron of multiple groups operating there. Attackers have shorter internal lines and extrication is much easier.
This does not mean the Army can lower its guard in other areas. While capturing and clearing territory in South Waziristan, Lower Dir, Bajaur, Malakand, Orakzai, etc primarily depended on difficult conventional operations, given the terrain, the holding and building phases are even more difficult. The insurgents/terrorists withdraw and melt away in the face of a stronger force but fall, for that very reason, on their inherent strength and flexibility of maneuver. They can keep a much larger force on constant high alert and tied down through smaller numbers. They are also protean and that is their asymmetric advantage.
The battlefield has no front and no rear. The TTP may have been ousted from its stronghold in South Waziristan but it can now be more elusive. It can operate from North Waziristan and in Mohmand; its affiliate groups can strike in Lower Dir and any other area of its choosing. Attacks have been prevented and pre-empted, but the insurgent-terrorist has only to succeed once.
It is difficult to identify the fighter and pack the punch when anyone can be a combatant, when internal lines of communication and kinship bonds work to the advantage of the insurgent who can move from the sanctuary to the preparation area to the operational area with relative ease, both in spatial and temporal senses, and when the contest relies on basic infantry weapons, low-tech improvisation and surprise.
TTP fighters can retreat to the sanctuary, relax, mount an attack through other cells elsewhere, bide their time, choose their targets across the country. The troops, on the other hand, have to stay alert, keep the adrenaline going, always observe track discipline, mount a massive effort for convoy movement, what the Army calls ROD (Road Opening Day), and suffer sporadic casualties through sneak attacks, sniper fire, IEDs and, sometimes, ambushes and raids.
This raises costs for the Army. Travelling through various operational areas in the past three years makes one point obvious: going in means getting tied down. Some areas; Malakand, Lower Dir and Buner being three such; have fared better. The populations are back, development is going apace, and while there are occasional suicide attacks, by and large the situation is under control.
The tribal agencies are a different matter. Operations in those areas have to be supplemented through effective intelligence and policing in the urban centres which are populated and provide good sanctuaries and target areas to the terrorists.
The attacks in Lahore are a case in point. It is now a war of wills where mistakes by the insurgents/terrorists must be leveraged against them. The attack on the shrine of Data Sahib, Lahore’s patron saint, could be a game-changer. But for that to happen, political parties must rise above petty squabbling and make this a non-partisan effort.
The Army has done its job well within the bounds of what it can do. But that also implies that it can only do this much and no more beyond the two phases of clear and hold. The civilian principals must step up to the plate. So far, they have not done so, choosing instead to score points and create further confusion. That does not instill confidence and makes the task of the Army even more difficult.