Until the Pakistan army swept into this small valley, Sararogha, surrounded by hills on November 3, it had served as the headquarter of the terrorist outfit Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in the South Waziristan region. Despite the elimination of its founder Baitullah Mehsud in a US drone strike on August 5; the TTP had the area firmly in grip, a virtual “black hole “ for security and intelligence forces.
The TTP had seized this town in a surprise raid on a paramilitary fort on January 25 last year. They instantly executed half of the two-dozen Frontier Corps soldiers, a move that filled the roughly 8000 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 commander officer, told me during a recent visit. “Sararogha had turned into a symbol of the TTP terror in the region.
The army took the town including the southern ridge – Point 1345 – that overlooks Sararogha and the road to the southern periphery. The fight for this point has been fierce and bloody, with a Lt. Colonel, losing one of his legs in fire from the TTP and al-Qaeda militants.
The colonel is currently under treatment at a military hospital in Rawalpindi, where the Pakistan army is headquartered, but officials wouldn’t name him for security reasons.
Officials claimed having killed over 550 militants in the current campaign sofar, with close to 100 casualties to the security forces.
Since access is extremely limited to the area and the army had choked all the arteries leading into the Mehsud region – dubbed as the terror den by many army officials before the launch of the operation – confirmation of the military claims is not possible. Also, almost the entire population has moved out – leaving the military to handle the militants, the numbers of who remains a mystery. No definite counts had ever been available, yet most local journalists put the TTP and al Qaeda strength ranging between 10,000-to 15,000.
But, regardless of the exact numbers of the captured and killed militants, or those who fled, the most important consequence of the latest offensive so far, is that the army has wrested control of the areas that it and other state institutions had lost to the militants over the past couple of years for two reasons; firstly the general elections in February last year, followed by a long-drawn squabbling between a politically tainted President Asif Zardari and his arch rival Nawaz Sharif, a two-time prime minister, resulted in unusual uncertainty, inaction and confusion as far as the war against militants was concerned.
Secondly, matters also came to a halt in the context of Nov 26 terror attacks in the Indian city of Mumbai. Following the civilian government’s “soft-peddling “ vis-à-vis the Indian offensive accompanying allegations that Pakistani intelligence were part of the plot, the mistrust between the civilian government, already alleged to be too pro American, and the Pakistani military establishment, led by General Ashfaq Kiyani, grew to the extent that action against militants in Waziristan also got delayed, allowing the Taliban and al Qaeda to perpetrate a reign of terror that almost completely eroded the writ of the government and also projected itself in the Pakistani cities through an ever growing number of suicide attacks on civilians and the security apparatus.
Maj.Gen.Athar Abbas, the spokesperson of the army, says taking the areas back from the militants was crucial to signal to “all and sundry that we would not tolerate any challenge to the state.” You cant allow a bunch of criminals to bully the state, said Abbas at Laddah, another small hilly town that the TTP and al Qaeda had converted into their sanctuary.
Dozens of books, magazines, and teachers’ manuals on warfare as well as on preparation of explosive devices in the Arabic language – left behind by the retreating militants at the seminaries in Sararogha as well as Laddah, located at almost 1800 metres altitude – suggest the presence of Arab fighters here – a strong indication on the convergence of al-Qaeda and local militants.
Several hand-written notebooks also explain how al Qaeda ideology binds followers of various shades of Islam together; one diary – that belongs to one Shehzad Akmal, details the journey of this man of the Sunni-Deobandi strand of Islam from Karachi, the Pakistani metropolis on the Arabian Sea in the south, to the tiny mountainous town of Sararogha in South Waziristan; this journey, as per the hand-written notes, took Shehzad to Kashmir, where Kashmiri militants had been fighting Indian forces since 1989, as well as to Lahore, where he twice attended the grand congregation of peaceful Muslim preachers some time in 2004. This all happened between March 2002, when he apparently left Karachi, and some time this year, when he ostensibly was either killed or forced to flee the area.
Another diary appears to belong to a Tehreek-ul-Mujahideen (TM) fighter, who details the evolution of this anti-India outfit with dates and venues. The TM happens to be a wahabite organization and draws its ideological inspiration from the Saudi Arabian version of Islam.
But the fact that the two “writers” belong to different shades of Islam, and mention several Arab names as their contacts, indicates that the Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda has galavanised Muslims of various shades and they simply put these ideological differences behind to join al Qaeda for its stated cause; fight the infidels led by America.
One of the pages of another notebook contains some interesting questions; what will be the fate of our Jihad against America if Pakistan (policy) remains the same. How best to fight the American-Jewish conspiracy against the Muslim Ummah, reads the other question, apparently given to the student by the teacher.
This trove of materials – that 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 look-back into the events – based on interviews with people displaced through the fighting and latest operation as well as with journalists from the region – also explains that through a swift but systematic campaign, the militants, then led by Baitullah and now by successor Hakimullah Mehsud, pushed out the entire local civilian administration, eliminated suspected government “collaborators” and practically declared this town as the headquarters of their state.
The Sararogha High School building, holed at places because of artillery fire, used to serve as Baitullah Mehsud’s “Court” where he would meet his regional commanders, and also pronounced punishments on opponents and dissidents.
A journalist threatened by TTP and now living quietly in Peshawar, also corroborated some of the horror tales narrated by army and government officials. Chased by the US-led ISAF troops and by Pakistani troops on both sides of the Durand Line – the 2560 kilometers long border that separates Pakistan and Afghanistan – al-Qaeda operatives had also settled down here.
Not surprising, therefore, that over 800 pro-government tribal elders and intelligence officials have fallen to the Taliban and al Qaeda witch-hunt for collaborators, most of them in the last four years. Execution and beheading of “spies” reached alarming levels particularly in North and South Waziristan since early 2008 as a result of target-killings because these believers in trans-boundary pan-Islamist militants
As of now, the remote and deserted towns and villages seem in control but the real challenge lies in retaining and consolidating that control, creating an environment that would allow the return of the civilian government officials and of those tens of thousands, who left for safer places in anticipation of a fierce stand-off between the military and the militants.
Viewed against the scale of threat posed by pan-Islamist forces, many of which seem to draw influence and material from external sources, the Pakistani army seems to be stuck in the Waziristan region for the medium to long term in. 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 sponsored non-state elements. The message this time around seems to be loud and clear; no matter what it takes and for how long, no incursion into the writ of the state will be tolerated. It would, however, be interesting to see how does President Barack Obama’s latest review of the Af-Pak impact the operations in Waziristan.
(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.”