Page last updated at 21:32 GMT, Sunday, 18 October 2009 22:32 UK

Tough task of vanquishing Taliban

Pakistani army soldier mans a bunker at a military outpost in South Waziristan (Archive photo)
The military wants to finish its operation against the Taliban in South Waziristan within two months

By Syed Shoaib Hasan
BBC News, Dera Ismail Khan

Make no bones about it, Pakistan's army is deadly serious about its operation against the Taliban in the lawless tribal area of South Waziristan.

It has deployed thousands of troops and a vast array of weaponry for what it knows is a crucial battle for the future of the Pakistani state.

But despite all these measures, it increasingly appears that traditional factors in this remote mountainous region bordering Afghanistan will be decisive.

The role of the military specialised units like its mountain units and the special forces will be critical
Ex-military officer

"Ultimately it will come down to the terrain and weather," says a senior government official based in the region.

"The timing of the operation is not the best and the forces will have to push fast and hard to defeat before the snows come."

At the moment, the situation is a stalemate as the army tries to use ground troops backed by heavy weapons and air power to push back the Taliban.

The militants have entrenched themselves in fortified positions in the areas where the military is marching in.

But they are likely to resort to traditional guerrilla tactics once the army is firmly inside territory controlled by the Mehsud tribe.

This is the heartland of the resistance, and it is here that the fate of the campaign will be decided.

Aerial shot of South Waziristan
The army is racing against the coming winter

The battleground for the opening round has mainly been conducted in arid lowlands so far.

But it is how the soldiers fight in the mountains and forests that will be the key to the success of this operation.

Pakistan army: Two divisions totalling 28,000 soldiers
Frontier Corp: Paramilitary forces from tribal areas likely to support army
Taliban militants: Estimated between 10,000 and 20,000
Uzbek fighters supporting Taliban: Estimates widely vary between 500-5,000

"The role of the military specialised units like its mountain units and the special forces will be critical," says an ex-military officer who has served in the region.

"These forces must be deployed in the forests and mountains before the militants retreat and entrench themselves."

The military's air power means the militants will have little choice but to head for the hills, he says,

"They will then retreat and settle into the regular pattern of guerrilla warfare at which they have few equals in the world."

In his opinion, a pre-emptive deployment of special units is essential for the operation to be completed in eight weeks, which is the aim of the army commanders.

"If the military does not use this tactic, the operation could last years, let alone two months."

'Second-class citizens'

But even if the army follows through with this and achieves military victory, that is only half the battle.

Thousands of people have fled the fighting in recent days
Hundreds of families are abandoning their homes to escape the fighting

As senior administrative officials are quick to point out, the time has now come to integrate the semi-autonomous tribal areas into regular Pakistan territory.

"Until and unless this is done, the sense of injustice will continue among the tribesmen," says one official.

"For more than half a century they have been treated as second-class citizens.

"They deserve to have their full rights if they are to continue to be loyal to the Pakistani state."

However, at the moment the government seems to be doing the exact opposite.

As thousands of tribal families flee South Waziristan, all measures in nearby Dera Ismail Khan suggest the authorities are least bothered about the looming humanitarian crisis.

The tribesmen, mostly ethnic Mehsud, have cried themselves hoarse for help, but have received a largely unsympathetic hearing from the local administration.

'Dangerous approach'

In fact, some officials have even suggested that the Mehsud tribe has brought the situation on themselves - giving two reasons for this "collective punishment":

The government has already laid the seeds of a new and more powerful wave to replace them
Local journalist

• Their perceived intransigence is refusing to support the government's offensive

• And their refusal to raise local tribesman or lashkars against the militants.

"This is a very dangerous approach on the behalf of the authorities," says a local relief worker in Dera Ismail Khan.

"If it backfires, and that is more likely, we will have would-be suicide bombers and militants running all over Pakistan."

So while the military might be doing its best to break the back of militancy in the region, the government's policies appear bent on losing the battle for the hearts and minds of the people.

"The army can kill all the militants they want," says a local journalist in the town of Tank, bordering South Waziristan.

"The government has already laid the seeds of a new and more powerful wave to replace them."


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