Until the Pakistani Army swept into this small, hill-flocked valley on Nov. 3, Sararogha had served as the South Waziristan headquarters of the powerful terrorist group Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan — known in English as the TTP. Despite the chaos since the death of its founder — Baitullah Mehsud, killed by a U.S. drone strike on Aug. 5 — the TTP had the area firmly in its grip, and made it a virtual black hole for government security and intelligence forces.
The TTP had seized the town in a surprise raid on a paramilitary fort on Jan. 25 last year. They instantly executed half of the two dozen Frontier Corps soldiers, a move that filled the roughly 8,000 inhabitants with fear and forced them into silence. The stones and debris still litter the ground of the fort — the result of heavy artillery fire that the army used while entering the town. “It all started from here, the challenge to the state of Pakistan,” Brig. Muhammed Shafiq, the commanding officer, told me during a recent visit. “Sararogha has turned into a symbol of the TTP terror in the region.”
But this month, the Army overtook the town and its southern ridge — Point 1345 — which overlooks Sararogha and the road to the periphery of the valley. The fight for this point has been fierce and bloody, with one soldier losing one of his legs to gunfire from the TTP and al Qaeda militants. The soldier is currently under treatment at a military hospital in Rawalpindi, where the Pakistani Army is headquartered, and officials will not name him for security reasons. Officials claim they have killed more than 550 militants in the current campaign thus far, while suffering close to 100 casualties themselves.
Since access to the area — dubbed the “terror den” by many Army officials — is extremely limited and the military has choked all the arteries leading into it, independently verifying these claims is not possible. The entire civilian population has moved away, taking away potential sources of context. There are no precise counts of how many TTP and al Qaeda fighters there are in the region, though local journalists generally say 10,000 to 15,000. Regardless of the exact numbers, the most important consequence of the latest offensive is that the Army has wrested control over an area it had once lost.
Two things made this possible. First, squabbling between politically tainted Asif Zardari, the president, and Nawaz Sharif, the former two-time prime minister, following last February’s elections resulted in uncertainty, inaction, and confusion in the war against militants. With power consolidated, the military has made swift, effective moves against the TTP and other forces.
Second, the terrorist bombings in Mumbai, India, on Nov. 26, 2008, halted fighting against terrorists in Pakistan as well. The civilian government “soft-pedaled” after allegations that Pakistani intelligence figures helped in the India plot emerged. The mistrust between the civilian government (considered to be too pro-American) and the military establishment (led by Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani) heightened, delaying action against militants in Waziristan. This allowed the Taliban and al Qaeda to perpetrate a reign of terror that almost completely eroded the writ of the government. It also led to an uptick in suicide attacks on civilians and the security apparatus in Pakistan.
But now, Pakistan is fighting in Waziristan again. Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, the Army’s spokesperson, says taking the areas back from the militants is crucial to signal to “all and sundry that we would not tolerate any challenge to the state.” In another hilly town claimed by the TTP and al Qaeda, Laddah, he said that you cannot allow a bunch of criminals to bully the state.
When the soldiers pushed the militants back, they found dozens of Arabic books, magazines, and teachers’ manuals on warfare and bomb-building. These documents and others left at the seminaries in Sararogha and Laddah suggest not just the presence of Arab fighters but the convergence of al Qaeda and local militant groups.
Several hand-written notebooks explain how al Qaeda ideology binds followers of various shades of Islam together. One diary, belonging to someone named Shehzad Akmal — a member of the Sunni Deobandi strand of Islam and a native of the Arabian Sea metropolis of Karachi, Pakistan — describes his journey from the southern coast to the tiny mountainous town in Waziristan, from 2002 to the present. It took him to Kashmir, where militants have battled Indian forces since 1989, then to Lahore, where he twice attended the grand congregation of peaceful Muslim preachers in 2004.
Another diary appears to belong to a fighter with the Tehrik ul-Mujahideen. He details the evolution of his anti-India outfit, naming places and people and dates. The TM, one learns, is a Wahabbi organization that draws its ideological inspiration from the Saudi Arabian version of Islam.
The fact that the two authors belong to different branches of Islam and mention several Arab names as their contacts indicates that al Qaeda has galvanized Muslims across the spectrum. They put behind their ideological differences to join al Qaeda for its stated cause: Fighting the infidels led by America.
One of the pages of another notebook contains some interesting questions. What will the fate of our jihad against America be if Pakistan remains the same? How do we best fight the American-Jewish conspiracy against the Muslim umma?
This trove of materials, which also explain the configurations of suicide jackets and improvised explosive devices, underscores how these al Qaeda techniques of insurgency have traveled from Saudi Arabia through Iraq to Afghanistan and Pakistan.
A careful consideration of the campaign — based on interviews with displaced persons as well as journalists from the region — also explains how the TTP and al Qaeda took control in the first place. Swiftly and systemically, militants led by Baitullah Mehsud and now by his successor Hakimullah Mehsud pushed out the entire local civilian administration, murdered suspected government “collaborators,” and then simply set up shop.
The Sararogha high school building, now damaged by artillery fire, served as Baitullah Mehsud’s “court,” where he met his regional commanders and pronounced punishments on opponents and dissidents.
A journalist threatened by the TTP who now lives quietly in Peshawar corroborated some of the horror stories collected by the Army and government officials. The U.S.-led ISAF troops in Afghanistan and Pakistani troops in Pakistan chased al Qaeda operatives on both sides of the Durand Line, the thousand-mile border between Pakistan and Afghanistan.
This military concentration makes it unsurprising that the Taliban and al Qaeda have murdered more than 800 pro-government tribal elders and intelligence officials in the region in the past four years. The Islamist groups witch-hunt for collaborators, and then execute (often by beheading) the “spies.” This practice has reached particularly alarming levels in Waziristan since 2008 as a result of the paranoia created by the drone strikes and other targeted killings by U.S. forces.
Since the Army offensive, these remote and deserted towns and villages seem in control. But the real challenge lies in retaining and consolidating that control and creating an environment that would allow the return of the civilian government officials and the tens of thousands of internal refugees who fled the bloody standoff.
Viewed against the scale of threat posed by the consolidating pan-Islamist forces, the Pakistani Army seems to be stuck in the Waziristan region for the medium to long term. But its presence here has certainly changed the dynamics of the militancy in the no-go tribal areas. The state is finally showing its teeth to an unholy alliance of local and foreign, al Qaeda-inspired and al Qaeda-sponsored non-state actors. The message this time around seems to be loud and clear: No matter what it takes and no matter for how long, such lawless behavior will not be tolerated.
(The author heads the independent Centre for Research and Security Studies, Islamabad. And the author of a recent Penguin publication “The Al-Qaeda Connection – Taliban and Terror in Tribal Areas.”