Sunday, July 13, 2014

Daily Times Editorial July 14, 2014

Cross-border attack Two soldiers and a captain were killed and two more soldiers wounded in an attack on a check post in the Bajaur tribal Agency from across the border by about two dozen militants armed with sophisticated weapons on Saturday. The pre-dawn attack was reportedly initiated by a rocket attack that hit the check post and led to the deaths and injuries. Although an unnamed senior government official bravely claimed that the militants were forced to flee after troops resisted, the truth probably lies in the very nature of such guerilla attacks, which are broken off after the element of initial surprise is exhausted and before the military can call for an effective response locally as well as through reinforcements, including the possibility of air power. The way such attacks play out therefore is more likely to be a swift, short assault, followed by a breaking off and retreat before the military can bring its superior force to bear. Although there is so far no claim of responsibility, it is reasonable to assume that the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) is behind the attack. The reason this assumption has weight is that such attacks are not new. After Mulla Fazlullah fled Swat in the wake of the military operation in 2009 and found refuge across the border in Afghanistan, reportedly thanks to the ‘generosity’ of the Haqqani network, cross-border attacks by much larger contingents have been mounted from time to time. If the reports about thousands of TTP fighters having crossed over into Afghanistan in anticipation of Operation Zarb-e-Azb are correct, it is logical to assume that the Haqqani network may have extended their hospitality to the new arrivals like the old and offered them safe havens from which they can operate against the Pakistani military across the border. It should not be forgotten that Mulla Fazlullah, formerly the leader of the Swat Taliban, today is the anointed chief of the TTP. As far as Operation Zarb-e-Azb is concerned, the initial euphoria regarding the military’s long overdue offensive has quickly dissipated because of concerns regarding the manner in which the operation has been mounted and is being pursued. The loud announcements of the offensive even before it began lost for the military the element of surprise. The cordon thrown around areas of concentration of the Taliban suffered from being too little too late and unable to completely close the trap. The result was that many TTP fighters moved into other tribal Agencies, just like they did during the 2010 South Waziristan offensive, or made their way across the Afghan border in order to live to fight another day. Like in previous military campaigns in FATA, the failure to secure and cut off escape routes for the guerrillas on a theatre-wise basis may turn out once again to prove a fatal flaw in the strategy. It can be surmised that the reported falling out of the military establishment with the Haqqani network may have had something to do with the latter’s earlier protection accorded to Mulla Fazlullah, and now the current crop of fleeing fighters. If this analysis is correct, Pakistan must brace for more such attacks, perhaps on a bigger scale and with increasing frequency, a campaign helped immeasurably by the long, porous border and the forbidding terrain. Given the above, this promises to be a long war, irrespective of the military’s claims that it has by now cleared Miranshah, the main town in North Waziristan. If the pictures of the main bazaar of Miranshah after the military’s endeavours are perused, it looks like a shell-shocked moonscape, with no sign of human or any other form of life. Retreat in the face of superior force is a sine qua non for guerrilla warfare. One more reason why cross-border attacks may increase is the situation inside Afghanistan in the run up to the withdrawal of foreign troops. As that presence thins incrementally, the Taliban will mount probing attacks on the Afghan army as they have done in recent days in Helmand and Kandahar. Not only is the Afghan army’s resilience a big question mark, the current impasse over the Afghan presidential run-off elections, despite the mediatory efforts of US Secretary of State John Kerry in getting the rival candidates to accept a UN-supervised recount of the disputed results, can feed into ethnic divisions that may eventually impact the ranks of the Afghan army too. With already tenuous control over most of its territory, including the Afghanistan-Pakistan border areas, it seems ironic if not laughable for the Pakistan foreign office to wax indignant over the attack and ‘call’ upon the Afghan authorities to prevent such attacks and cooperate with Pakistan’s ongoing operation against the TTP. Even were they able, it is not clear the Afghan authorities have any love lost for what they see as their Pakistani tormentors of long standing. Pakistan therefore will have to rethink its defence of its western border on its own.

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