The Pakistani army launched its long-awaited offensive against Taliban elements in South Waziristan as Pakistanis protested an American aid package of $7.5 billion as an interference in their internal affairs. The army moved deep into the southernmost region of the federally-administered tribal areas (FATAs), which border on Afghanistan. The attack created a wave of civilian retreat that has already begun a humanitarian crisis that will complicate efforts in both countries in fighting extremists:
The Pakistani army pushed farther into a mountainous Taliban and al-Qaeda haven Sunday, as civilians continued to flow out of an area that has become a full-fledged battleground.
On the second day of a ground offensive in the restive border region of South Waziristan, the military said at least 60 militants and five soldiers had been killed. The Pakistani Taliban, which the government says has plotted a cascade of recent attacks on security forces from its base in the area, told the Associated Press that its fighters had inflicted “heavy casualties” against the army.
The fight in South Waziristan is a key test for Pakistan’s military, which is tasked with shattering a rising Islamist insurgency that has killed nearly 200 people in bombings and gunfights in the past two weeks. American officials, who have urged Pakistan to get tougher on militants operating on its soil, say the region is also a hub for militants who plan attacks on U.S.-led forces across the border in Afghanistan. …
Local officials say tens of thousands of people have fled South Waziristan — most in a steady trickle over the past few months and several thousand more in recent days. The military had been carrying out aerial strikes against militant hideouts for months as it prepared for the ground operation.
The Pakistanis are mostly targeting the Mehsud clan, which runs the Taliban and provides much of its support. They have identified Mehsud assets over the last several months and hope to target them closely in an attempt to minimize the collateral damage in the region. Unfortunately, when an army pulls out artillery and uses helicopters and airplanes to attack positions, collateral damage is unavoidable, and the political fallout could be severe for the elected government.
Pervez Musharraf had more leeway as an unelected dictator in conducting these wars, but even Musharraf couldn’t maintain an offensive against the Taliban. He constantly frustrated the Bush administration with ill-advised truces that allowed the Taliban to rearm and to expand their holdings. Can the elected government remain in power long enough to conduct a proper war in the FATAs, enough to dislodge Taliban and al-Qaeda leadership and force them into a vise between Pakistan and NATO forces in Afghanistan? If Musharraf couldn’t maintain the political capital and army loyalty to do so, it seems unlikely that Islamabad will in this instance, either. That may be why the Pakistani government has made it so clear that they’re primarily going after the Mehsuds.
The latest aid deal from the US may also be a problem in that regard. It has generated a lot of protest as an intrusion on Pakistani sovereignty, which has allowed the extremists to strike a chord with other Pakistanis. Hopefully, those protests will turn out to be a tempest in a teapot, and the latest string of attacks on civilians from terrorists will almost certainly dampen any nascent sympathy for the Taliban in the rest of the country. Whether that translates to more determination to fight remains to be seen, but the Pakistanis have at least jumped out to a good start.
Update: Jules Crittenden makes a good point — if we’re not pushing back with more troops on the other side of the border, how effective can Pakistan’s new offensive be, even if they commit to it fully?