A Pakistani Army soldier patrols as Shiite Muslim mourners take part in a religious procession in Rawalpindi in December. (Agence France-Presse)
ISLAMABAD — A Pakistani Taliban (TTP) spokesman, Shahidullah Shahid, has said the government is opting for war by carrying out recent airstrikes in North Waziristan, the Khyber Agency yesterday.
However, analysts do not expect the government will order a full-scale military ground operation despite preparations that are being made for such an undertaking.
Brian Cloughley, former Australian defense attache to Islamabad, said: “The airstrikes are an attempt by [Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif] to show that he is decisive, but in fact they don’t prove anything, because their effects are minimal.”
Indeed, government statements and some media reports have claimed the airstrikes show the prime minister has lost patience with the Taliban, but Cloughley argues that to be effective, far more concerted action is required.
“There is only one way to go about achieving defeat of the [North Waziristan] Taliban, and that is a full-scale ground operation backed by massive airstrikes. It will be horrible, but it’s got to be done. And it can only be ordered by the [prime minister],” he said.
Like many analysts, he said he doubts the prime minister would order such an operation, but added: “The army is keeping very quiet about any plans for major operations in [North Waziristan], but there is no doubt that plans have been made.”
The airstrikes were launched after the TTP claimed to have executed 23 captive paramilitary soldiers. They belonged to the Frontier Corps and were apparently held captive since June 2010, when they were captured during a TTP raid on a checkpost near the Afghan-Pakistan border.
The Mohmand chapter of the TTP claimed it killed the men on Feb. 16 in response to the extrajudicial killings of 23 of their own men held by the government. The police and government have strenuously denied any such killings have taken place.
The government also called off further negotiations with a three-man committee appointed by the TTP to discuss the possibility of a ceasefire and wider peace talks. The process was widely derided by analysts, and considered only a TTP ploy to avert a government military response in North Waziristan.
Analyst Haris Khan of the Pakistan Military Consortium think tank says the picture is complicated because the TTP has in effect splintered.
The Mohmand Agency chapter of the TTP was known to be more extreme and opposed to any talks. However, he attributes the killing of the 23 paramilitaries to the Ahrar-ul-Hind (AUH), which split from the main TTP when peace talks between it and the government commenced after attacks in January.
Khan says the AUH has been active in training suicide bombers and preparing IEDs, as well as receiving recruits from Western Europe.
As a result, he claims its training camps have been a major target for the airstrikes and many of those TTP claimed killed by the government are actually AUH members.
“It should be noted with the recent bombing campaign both by the Pakistan Army and [Pakistan Air Force], the intelligence of the area was very accurate. The success in this raid is a testimony of the ISR apparatus which is shared between Pakistan’s military, the [Defense Intelligence Agency] and CIA,” Cloughley said.
There may also be legitimate questions about a possible continuing lack of equipment for the military.
According to Cloughley, “The [Pakistan Army] has enough equipment to conduct the operation.”
However, “It will really have to be a blitzkrieg, and I’m sure the army has told [Sharif] that there will be vast human cost,” he said.
Khan agrees that the military has enough firepower to deal with the TTP.
“The Pakistan Army, having been fighting against these groups since 2002, has lacked much needed MRAP-type vehicles, along with IED neutralizers. Presently, the army utilizes Toyota 4x4 pick-up trucks with some very limited armor to transport troops entering these areas. This is where the highest level of casualties the Pak Army has sustained,” he said.
Whether a ground operation is launched, analysts are predicting an upswing in TTP attacks as a result of the developments.