Page last updated at 15:17 GMT, Tuesday, 9 October 2007 16:17 UK

Pakistan army's tribal quagmire

By M Ilyas Khan
BBC News, Karachi

The border area consists of large tracts of inhospitable terrain

At 11,000 feet, with the temperature dipping 10 degrees below freezing, an army pilot recalls how he was sweating from head to toe.

There was a fault in the engine and he might have crashed at any moment.

And while he could eject to safety, he would then be floating straight into the jaws of a death more dreadful than being charred inside a crashed jet.

"This is a country where soldiers are slaughtered," he told me after his dramatic flight. "Their bodies may be found, but not their heads."

He was over-flying North Waziristan, a Pakistani tribal district on the border with Afghanistan where the army is fighting a difficult war against Islamic militants.

Ambushes and kidnappings

The pilot's comments are indicative of the sinking morale of the army.

During the last few months, military personnel have increasingly become targets of ambushes and kidnappings.

The headless bodies of several kidnapped soldiers have been found, with messages from the militants warning the army to pull out of the area.

In some of the latest fighting on Monday, the army reported 50 troops missing when a supply convoy to one of the garrisons in the north eastern part of the district was ambushed.

Lwara Fort on the Pakistan- Afghan border

Local reports say all 50 were killed and their bodies set on fire. The army says only 25 were killed.

In August, militants in the neighbouring South Waziristan district kidnapped nearly 300 troops, including at least nine officers, who are yet to be released.

Significantly, many of these troops are reported to have surrendered without firing a shot.

This has landed the government in a tight spot.

One way of restoring the morale of the troops would be to go in with a clearly defined surgical operation, having a set time-frame.

This could be followed by a prompt and efficient programme of economic aid and political reform aimed at winning friends and isolating the "enemies".

Fuel to the fire

But the government is arguably already past that stage, mainly due to its early policy of protecting the Taleban and their "foreign guests".

For months after the country joined the US-led "war on terror" in 2001, North and South Waziristan districts continued to serve as a transit point for Taleban, Arab and other foreign fighters escaping US military operations in Afghanistan.


When it came under pressure from Western powers to do something about this, the government decided to send in the army.

That sidelined the tribal administration which had the experience of governing the tribal areas over the years.

As a result, the army suffered disastrous losses in 2004. Soon after, it signed a string of peace treaties leaving the militants in virtual control of the region.

However, it did occasionally act on specific US intelligence to destroy the odd target, or claimed to have carried out a strike that was actually conducted by the US inside Pakistani territory.

Two such strikes in the tribal regions of Bajaur and South Waziristan in late 2006 and early 2007 enraged militant leaders who vowed revenge.

In July, the army's storming of the radical Red Mosque in the country's capital, Islamabad, added fuel to the fire.

More than 200 people were killed in the three attacks.

One way of restoring the morale of the troops would be to go in with a clearly defined surgical operation
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The government described the occupants of the Red Mosque as militants, but they and their political allies said they were either religious students or innocent civilians.

In any event, the militants unilaterally cancelled their peace agreements with the government and started targeting the army and the police.

Helicopter gunship

Over the years, Pakistan says it has deployed more than 90,000 troops in the tribal areas, the bulk of them in Waziristan.

Following peace deals with the militants, these troops were pulled out of check posts and were either deployed on the border with Afghanistan, or stationed in scores of fortified military posts dating from the British period.

Troops in North Waziristan are supplied from two roads, one coming in from the east and another from the north.

Those in South Waziristan only have one supply road, which links Wana with Dera Ismail Khan, a city in the south of the North West Frontier Province.

Once inside the tribal region, these supplies are transported via a network of roads and dirt tracks that connect various military posts.

Gun position at the high altitude Mangrotai border post
Soldiers are being kidnapped on a regular basis

It is these roads and tracks that are most vulnerable.

Over the last couple of months, no supply convoy has traversed the region without the escort of a helicopter gunship.

But combat troops are reluctant to face the militants on the ground, apparently because their knowledge of the area is limited and the "enemy" is indistinguishable from the civilian population.

Earlier this year, the army succeeded in evicting foreign fighters from Wana by supporting a Taleban commander, Maulvi Nazir.

But in Mir Ali, another major hub of foreign militants linked to al-Qaeda, there is no evidence that a similar strategy is going to be repeated.

The Pakistani military is well and truly bogged down.

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