SOUTH ASIA INTELLIGENCE REVIEW
Bajaur Agency in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan is now the nerve centre for military operations targeting the Taliban – al Qaeda combine. This extended battle in Bajaur will have a significant impact, not only on how Pakistan prosecutes its campaign against terrorism and on the trajectory of conflict in neighbouring Afghanistan, but also on the future of Islamist terrorism and extremism across the world.
Operation Sherdil (Lion Heart) began in August 2008 and was initially aimed at preventing the imminent fall of Khar, headquarters of Bajaur Agency, to the Taliban. While the military operations are intended to reclaim the whole of Bajaur from the Taliban – al Qaeda axis, particular emphasis has been focused on Salarzai Revenue Division (primarily in the Dara, Mullah Syed and Banda areas), Rashakai, Tang Khatta, Mamoond, Bai Cheena, Bicheena, Delay, Nisarabad, Niag Banda, Charmang and Khazana, the areas of largest concentration of the militant Islamist forces.
During the ongoing military operations in Bajaur, some 2,744 ‘terrorists’ have already been killed, including 321 foreigners, and 1,400 injured, according to a military briefing during the joint session of Parliament in Islamabad on October 8 (since most of the ‘terrorist’ kills have been the result of aerial strikes, there is no authoritative separation of terrorist and ‘collateral’ fatalities). The military reportedly briefed the legislators about the worsening situation in FATA, NWFP and Balochistan and the US-led "war on terror" during the joint sitting of the two Houses of Parliament held in camera. This was only the third secret session of Parliament in Pakistan’s history.
After Waziristan, Bajaur is arguably the most significant stronghold of militants who have entrenched themselves in the FATA, transforming the Agency into a nerve centre of the Taliban – al Qaeda network. Sources indicate that foreign al Qaeda militants are converging on Bajaur to bolster the ranks of the jihadis during the all-out military action against them. In fact, foreign militants are reportedly leading the counter-attack, since the Army action cannot be opposed solely by the local jihadis. The foreign militants – Arabs, Chechens, Uzbeks and Afghans – are reportedly led by an Afghan commander identified as Qari Ziaur Rehman. The militants’ strength in Bajaur is estimated at about 2,000, including both foreigners and the Pakistani Taliban, according to Major General Tariq Khan, the Frontier Corps (FC) chief in the region. He said the Taliban’s fighting strength had not decreased appreciably, despite heavy casualties, due to reinforcements coming in from the northwest and Afghanistan. "I personally feel that trained squads have been moved in," Khan added.
Ever since militants of different nationalities began using Bajaur as a safe haven, they have transformed the region into a well secured fortress, constructing tunnel systems and trenches across the Agency. Network of tunnels have been discovered in the Taliban strongholds of Tankkhata, Rashakai and Loyesam, and sources disclosed to the Daily Times that "They [militants] would fire at the Forces from some house and then use the tunnel to escape the Army’s return fire." According to the report, "these foreigners were interested in renting houses by the roadside, and paid Rs. 20,000 to Rs. 25,000 in rent per month. The purpose of renting houses along the roadside was to attack the Forces if they launched action against the militants."
The militants’ resistance is stiffening, with better tactics and communication systems, reinforcements, and arms and ammunition from across the border. Reinforcements are coming from other Agencies in the FATA and from Afghanistan (primarily from the Kunar province). Western diplomatic sources acknowledge that the "level of violence in Kunar has dropped appreciably since the launch of the operation in Bajaur, indicating a planning and operational linkage that overlaps the Durand Line."
The extremists, Army chief Kayani said during his visit to Bajaur on September 28, 2008, were attacking not only security forces and Government installations but were also blowing up girls’ schools and health centres.
As has happened elsewhere in Pakistan, the conflict in Bajaur has led to a huge displacement of the civilian population. While there are no accurate figures of the number of refugees, reliable reportage indicates that an estimated 500,000 people have been displaced from the Agency since August 2008. There has also been a flight out of Bajaur by an estimated 70, 000 Afghans, following orders by the local administration to vacate the Agency. Many of the Afghans reportedly have crossed the border into Afghanistan, while others have shifted to the Dir Lower District. The Afghan refugees in Bajaur had been living there since the late 1970s, after fleeing the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
Despite the widespread violence, displacement and an expansion of the conflict into other areas, including several cities in Pakistan, the Army remains optimistic about reclaiming the territory. The FC Inspector General, Major General Tariq Khan, stated, on September 26, that the situation in Bajaur would be stabilised within two months: "My timeframe for Bajaur is anything from between one-and-a-half to two months to bring about stability." He stated that the troops had killed more than 1,000 Taliban – al Qaeda militants and injured 2,000 others since the offensive began in early August, and that five top commanders were among those killed in the ongoing operations. Among the commanders killed were Egyptian Abu Saeed Al-Masri, Arab Abu Suleiman, Uzbek Mullah Mansoor, and an Afghan commander identified as Manaras. The fifth was a son of Maulana Faqir Mohammad, the top Taliban commander in the region. Some 63 soldiers had died and 212 were injured in the operation so far, Khan disclosed further.
The stakes for the military in Bajaur are immense. As Pakistani commentator Ismail Khan notes, it has "created a surrender-or-die situation for the militants and a now-or-never moment for the country’s security forces." Some in the Army believe that 65 percent of the Taliban problem would be eliminated if they were defeated in Bajaur. Describing Bajaur as a ‘centre of gravity’ for the Taliban, Major General Tariq Khan claimed, "If they lose here, they’ve lost almost everything." He explained, further: "Why we are calling this a test case? If we dismantle the training camps here, the headquarters, the communication centres, the roots which come in, stop the inter-agency movement and destroy the leadership. Out here we feel that about 65 per cent or so of militancy would have been controlled."
But this optimism is not generally shared, even within the Army. Military operations had been a mixed bag of success and setbacks and no timeframe could be given about the ongoing campaigns, sources in the military said in a media briefing on September 29. "It is a continual operation. It is not going to end in 2008 and it is not going to end in 2009. Don’t be optimistic, as far as the timeframe is concerned. It is a different ground and it will take some time."
That the Army has a difficult task is obvious. But the situation is made worse by a trust deficit at the local level which, in turn, has been aggravated by US incursions in FATA. The mounting civilian casualties (which are impossible to estimate at present) and a steadily growing refugee situation have added to the complexities. Further, Islamabad has predominantly relied on an aerial strategy to target militant locations in Bajaur. Noted journalist Syed Saleem Shahzad observes, "the Army, according to sources, was not deployed on the ground because it is not prepared to take casualties. Until the Army gains control of the ground, military operations in Bajaur will remain in limbo."
Government and security officials have disclosed to the media that "they are baffled by the resilience and stiff resistance offered by the battle-hardened fighters, by their tactics and the sophistication of their weapons and communications systems." One senior official noted that "They have good weaponry and a better communication system (than ours)… Even the sniper rifles they use are better than some of ours. Their tactics are mind-boggling and they have defences that would take us days to build. It does not look as though we are fighting a rag-tag militia; they are fighting like an organised force."
There is, moreover, significant apprehension in Islamabad that increasing ‘collateral damage’ in an augmenting conflict may lead to a severe public backlash across Pakistan, and consequently undermine the political support required for a successful campaign in Bajaur. Reports already indicate that the fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), which has a "strong political base in Bajaur and has had close ties with Gulbadin Hekmatyar’s Hizb-i-Islami (which operates in Kunar) has already launched a campaign against the operation."
On its side, the Taliban appears to be determined to defend Bajaur till the last jihadi. More importantly, however, they are clearly escalating the conflict in Pakistan's cities. The latest instance of this strategy was visible on October 9, when a bomb blast destroyed the headquarters of Pakistan's Anti-Terrorist Squad (ATS) in Islamabad, though there were no casualties (four policemen were reportedly wounded) since there were few Policemen at the location at that time. The bomb, which was disguised as a packet of sweets, was allegedly sent by Waliur Rehman, a Bajaur-based commander of the Jaish-e-Islami Pakistan, a militant group aligned with the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Waliur Rehman was reportedly wounded on September 25 when helicopter gunships targeted his hideout in Khar, headquarters of the Bajaur Agency. A note left at the ATS office said: "Human bombs would continue to target the security forces personnel if the Pakistani authorities do not stop fighting the US-led war against terror." Even the suicide bombing at Hotel Marriott in Islamabad on September 20, in which 60 people were killed, was a clear indication that the Taliban have brought the battle to Pakistan’s cities. An emboldened Taliban also abducted Abdul Khaliq Farahi, Afghanistan's Ambassador-designate to Islamabad, from the upscale Hyatabad area in Peshawar, capital of the NWFP, in broad daylight on September 22, after killing his driver. Till the time of writing, Farahi remains missing.
Islamabad, evidently, has limited choices, and the options are circumscribed further by the immense pressure that is currently being exerted by Washington. Even as Operation Sherdil continues, sources indicate that preparations are underway to begin an all-out campaign in North Waziristan, where some militant leaders are believed to have shifted. NATO reportedly favors the operation in North Waziristan because, "like Bajaur, it is a nest of Afghan resistance, mainly of (the) pro-Pakistan Jalaluddin Haqqani (faction)." Significantly, the neutralization of any ‘high-value target’ in the FATA is expected to have considerable impact on the campaign strategy of Republican candidate John McCain in the U.S.
An eventual failure in Bajaur or the abandonment of Operation Sherdil midway (as has been the case for military operations in South Waziristan, Darra Adamkhel and Swat on earlier occasions), will undermine the entire effort to restore some measure of order along the frontier – and indeed, across Pakistan. The campaign in Bajaur is crucial to successes in the other provinces and will impact on the strategy of the Taliban – al Qaeda combine both in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Weekly Fatalities: Major Conflicts in South Asia
October 6-12, 2007
Provisional data compiled from English language media sources.
46 militants surrender in Assam: 46 militants, including 26 United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) cadre surrendered along with a cache of arms and ammunition before the Army at the Dinjan camp in Tinsukia District on October 6. All the ULFA cadres belong to the "B company" of the outfit's 28th battalion. Telegraph, October 7, 2008.
Existence of Salwa Judum necessary, rules National Human Rights Commission: The Supreme Court-appointed National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) investigation into Salwa Judum (anti-Maoist vigilante programme) in Chhattisgarh has justified the movement as a "spontaneous revolt of the tribals against years of atrocities and harassment suffered by them at the hands of Naxalites (left-wing extremists)". The NHRC report, submitted to the apex court also dismisses most of the allegations of human rights abuses made by the petitioners in the apex court, including widely reported use of minors by Salwa Judum. The report blames the Naxalites for human rights abuses and sees action by Salwa Judum activists from the prism of necessary retaliation. The report further says that 15 years after Jan Jagran Abhiyan (Mass Awareness Campaign), an earlier attempt to deal with Naxalites, "local tribals once again mustered courage to stand up to the Naxalites, which only goes to show their sense of desperation." Economic Times, October 7, 2008.
Union Government launches special scheme for Left Wing extremism affected Districts in eight States: The Union Government has launched a special scheme for Districts of eight States most-affected by Left Wing extremism to construct hostels to promote education among tribals and contain dropout rates. The scheme initiated by the Ministry of Tribal Affairs offers 100 per cent financial assistance to the Maoist-affected States/Union Territories from the Union Government for the purpose of benefiting students belonging to Scheduled Tribes (STs) and also primitive tribal groups. The scheme has so far been made available to a total of 33 Districts listed as "Maoist-affected" by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) in the States of Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Orissa, Bihar, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh. PTI News, October 8, 2008.
‘Chief Commander’ of Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammed among two militants killed in Jammu and Kashmir: Security forces shot dead the ‘chief commander’ of the Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), identified as Zaheer Ahmad alias Pasha, and his accomplice, Saifullah alias Shoukat Bhai alias Faisal, during a five-hour gun battle on October 9 at Ganie Mohalla Warpora in the Sopore area of Baramulla District. Both the militants hailed from Faisalabad in Pakistan. Two AK assault rifles and some ammunition were recovered from the slain militants. Daily Excelsior, October 10, 2008.
Central Reserve Police Force loses most of its personnel in Left-wing extremism affected areas: According to available data on fatalities among the para-military Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), during the first nine months of 2008, more than 60 percent of the fatalities were reported form the areas affected by Naxalism (left-wing extremism) in the country, mainly in the States of Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand. An official of the CRPF disclosed, "Of the 49 security personnel who died in action, 30 were killed while fighting Naxals. In Kashmir, which witnessed violence during the Amarnath land transfer controversy this year, we lost eight security personnel." Arms and ammunition lost by CRPF is also highest in the left-wing extremism affected areas. 12 arms and 900 rounds of ammunition were looted by Naxals in Chhattisgarh from CRPF personnel. Out of the 189 encounters in which CRPF personnel took part between January and September this year, 106 took place in Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand. 48 encounters were reported from Jammu & Kashmir. CRPF personnel killed 168 terrorists/extremists in the same period, including 80 in Kashmir, 30 in Jharkhand and 17 in Chhattisgarh. The Force also arrested over 1,500 militants, seized 1,557 arms, 57,460 rounds of ammunition and 7,580 kilograms of explosives. The Statesman, October 11, 2008.
85 persons killed in suicide attack in Orakzai Agency: At least 85 persons were killed and around 200 others wounded when a suicide bomber detonated an explosives-laden vehicle in an anti-Taliban jirga (council) of the Ali Khel tribe in the Khadezai area of Upper Orakzai Agency in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) on October 10. "We were busy in raising a lashkar (militia) to evict Taliban from the region when this attack took place," said Qeemat Khan Orakzai, a jirga member. Earlier local tribesmen had destroyed three Taliban hideouts, including the houses of two Taliban commanders in the Dabori area of the agency. Kamran Zeb, a top government official in Orakzai, disclosed, "The lashkar had taken a decision to destroy militants’ headquarters in the region. Shortly afterwards, this attack took place." The death toll, initially quoted to be 40, had risen to 85 by October 11. Reuters; Daily Times, October 11, 2008.
Anti-Taliban offensive continues in Bajaur: At least 42 Taliban terrorists and two civilians were killed in the past week in a continued air and land offensive between the SFs and the Taliban terrorists in the Bajaur Agency of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). On October 6, Frontier Corps (FC) personnel clashed with militants in "militia uniforms" in the Khazana area and killed six of them. On the same day, security forces (SFs) backed by tanks and artillery advanced towards Lowi Sam, a militant stronghold. SFs had previously destroyed militant sanctuaries and had established several checkpoints in the Rashakai area. A one and a half kilometre stretch between Rashakai and Lowi Sam had thus been cleared of mines and other types of explosives. On October 8, at least 20 Taliban militants, including eight foreigners, were killed when helicopter gunships hit their hideouts in the Badaan area of Mamoond tehsil (Revenue Division). Official sources claimed that the house of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) spokesman Maulvi Omar was also destroyed in the action. Taliban militants blew up three houses in the Tauheed area of Khar town. Continued shelling by helicopter gunships on October 9 killed three suspected militants near Damadola in the Mamond sub-division. In the Oamri village under the same sub-division, two women were killed as an artillery shell hit a house. On October 12, 13 Taliban militants were killed as helicopter gunships and jet fighters targeted militant positions in Kotki, Charmang and Chinar areas of Nawagai tehsil.
Apart from the military operations, direct confrontations between the Government-backed anti-Taliban tribal lashkars of separate tribes and the Taliban are adding to the conflict dynamics in the region. On October 6, thousands belonging to the Mamoond tribe burned the houses of several Taliban, including a commander. Elders of the tribe said their men would continue action against the Taliban until peace was restored in the Agency. Also on October 9, the Utmankhel and Mandal tribes convened jirgas and declared their support to SF operations in the area. The jirgas formed local peace committees to monitor the activities of the Taliban and also to take action against the Taliban through armed tribal lashkars. On the same day, the Shinwari tribe participated in a jirga and formed a committee to ‘handle law and order’ in the area. On October 10, in the Mandal area of Salarzai tehsil, a tribal lashkar comprising thousands of armed tribesmen announced a crackdown against militants in their area. On the same day, the Taliban beheaded four tribal elders, part of a lashkar, in the Charmang area. On October 12, in the same area, three more lashkar men were killed by the Taliban. Daily Times, October 7 - 11, 2008.
25 persons killed in suicide blast at PML-N MP’s house in Bhakkar: A suicide bomber blew himself up in a crowd of people at the house of Rashid Akbar Niwani, a Shia Member of the National Assembly from the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) at Bhakkar in the Punjab province, 260 kilometres southwest of national capital Islamabad. The explosion killed 25 persons and wounded 60 others, including Niwani. "It was a suicide attack, the head of the bomber has been recovered," said senior police officer Khadim Hussain. Local hospital chief, Chaudhry Ahsanul Haq, said that Niwani had suffered leg injuries. No organisation claimed responsibility for the attack. Local officials, however, said Niwani might have been targeted because he is Shia and lives in an area where there have been frequent sectarian attacks blamed on al Qaeda and Taliban-linked Sunni groups. Nawani has spoken out in Parliament several times recently against growing sectarian violence between Sunnis and Shias. Daily Times, October 7, 2008.
21 Taliban militants killed in air strikes in Swat: At least 21 Taliban militants were killed in air strikes on their hideouts in the Ghat Peochar and Landai Sarshur areas of Swat District in the NWFP, a military spokesman Colonel Nadeem said on October 9. The air strikes also destroyed several suspected Taliban hideouts. Taliban spokesman Muslim Khan, however, denied the military’s claims. He said, out of the 20 missiles fired, one hit a primary school and three others hit several houses. No loss of life was caused as a result of the attacks, he claimed. Daily Times, October 10, 2008.
271 LTTE militants among 338 persons killed during the week: 271 Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) militants, 35 civilians and 32 soldiers were among 338 persons killed in separate incidents between October 6 and October 12. At least 20 LTTE militants and four soldiers were killed while 27 militants and six soldiers were wounded as the troops captured a section of the bunker line constructed along the Nachchakuda – Akkarayankulam Road at Panniwedikulam in the West of Vannerikuma area in the Kilinochchi District on October 4. This strategic success now deprives the LTTE of a vital supply route to Nachchakuda. The security forces (SFs) on October 5 killed eight LTTE militants and injured at least nine others during clashes in the Iranamadu and southwest of Iranamadu areas in the Kilinochchi District. Two soldiers were also killed in these operations. At least nine militants were killed and 27 others injured as SFs neutralized four LTTE bunkers in the Adampankula, Madam, Kidippidikulam, Terankandal, Alankulam, Odrattakulam, Andankulam and Gajabapura areas Vavuniya and Kilinochchi Districts on October 6. One soldier was also killed during the confrontations. At least 16 LTTE militants were killed and 26 others injured as the troops captured a line of LTTE bunkers in the Andankulam area of Vavuniya District on October 7. Eight soldiers were also killed while 45 others sustained injuries during these clashes. Separately, at least 21 LTTE militants were killed and an unspecified number of them injured during clashes with the SFs at Wanniyarkulam in the area north of Panniwedikulam in the Kilinochchi District on October 8. At least 22 LTTE militants were killed as the troops neutralised five militant bunkers in the Akkarayankulam and Vannavikulam areas of Kilinochchi District on October 9. One soldier was also killed during the clash. Another 14 militants were killed and 10 others injured by the troops in the Maniarkulam area on October 11. Two soldiers were also killed in the incident. On October 12, 40 militants were killed as the troops operating north east of Nachchakuda in the west of Kilinochchi District carried out attacks targeting the outfit attempting to reach reinforcements to the front. Sri Lanka Army; Daily News; Colombo Page, October 6-13, 2008.
28 persons killed in LTTE suicide attack in Anuradhapura: 28 persons, including the United National Party (UNP) North Central Province Provincial Council Member, Maj. General Janaka Perera and his wife were killed on October 6 in a suicide bomb attack by the LTTE inside the UNP office near the Old Bus Stand in Anuradhapura. More than 86 others sustained injuries in the blast that occurred around 8:45am (SLST) during a function held to declare open the new UNP office. Among the dead were UNP Manager in Anuradhapura, Dr John Pulle and his wife.
Separately, on October 9, Agriculture Development and Agrarian Services Development Minister Maithripala Sirisena escaped an LTTE suicide attack at Pirivena junction in the Boralesgamuwa area of Colombo District. A female suicide cadre blew herself up targeting Minister Sirisena’s motorcade at Pirivena junction around 1.15 pm (SLST) when the Minister was returning after a Government function in the Bandaragama area. While the Minister escaped unhurt, a civilian was killed and five others, including Deputy Minister Siripala Gamlath and newly appointed Ministry Secretary Ranjith Wijethilaka, were injured. Daily News; Colombo Page, October 7 & 10, 2008.