According to Comd 11 Corps, Lt Gen Safdar Hussain, 246 militants have been killed during the course of military operations in South Waziristan, at least 100 foreigners (Uzbeks and Chechnyans among them), in the last few months. He claimed that 579 militants have been arrested. And then came the shocker, 171 of our Pakistani soldiers (regular and paramilitary) have also died during the operations, 21 because of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). As a company commander of an infantry battalion (44 Punjab now 4 Sindh) which suffered the maximum casualties (some of it in hand-to-hand fighting) during counter-guerilla operations in Balochistan in 1973, for me the high casualty rate is alarming. The Corps Comd estimated several hundred tribal militants are operating against our forces, 100 plus being foreigners. Ruling out the presence of Osama Bin Laden in the area, he confirmed indications that Tahir Yuldash, a leader of the Independent Uzbekistan Movement (IUM), could be operating with the hostiles. What this successor of renowned Uzbek Mujhahideen leader Juma Namangani (killed fighting alongwith the Talibaan in Konduz in Oct/Nov 2001) is doing in Pakistan is anyone’s guess!
South Waziristan has always been a very difficult area. During British rule there was a permanent brigade group stationed at Wana and another one in Razmak (North Waziristan). When the Quaid entrusted the defence of our western frontiers to the tribals in what became known as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), the brigade groups were pulled out. Brig Ingall, the first Commandant of the Pakistan Military Academy (PMA) being newly established at Kakul, requested the respective Brigade groups for help. All the furniture, furnishings, crockery, etc of the two Officers Club (including the crests of the two brigades and the regimental crests of the British units which had served in Razmak and Wana) were donated to PMA, enough to furnish the Academy’s cadet messes. For many years two of the cadet ante-rooms were known as the “Razmak Brigade” and “Wana Brigade” Rooms. Fifty years plus into our independence a larger military presence than the British ever had in Wana and Razmak will be required for the foreseeable future to rid the country of the curse of terrorism.
There is a clear nexus between guerilla warfare and terrorism in Wana. Guerillas operating in their own territory are usually careful not to alienate the local population, that being their major source for their sustenance and support. On the other hand, their main weapon being to cause mayhem and fear among “soft targets”, terrorists have no qualms about causing maximum casualties among civilians as they are doing in Wana, contrary to normal tribal customs about the rules of engagement. A largely rocky and barren country with walled tribal villages, each with one or more watchtowers, South Waziristan has poor soil, with only small patches of cultivation around the villages. The main source of survival for the locals has been banditry and smuggling i.e. till the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979. Both North and South Waziristan thereafter became staging areas for the Afghan Mujhahideen, this spurred some economic activity, and even sparse affluence. Over the years some of the foreign Mujhahideen settled down permanently with the Mahsuds and the Waziris. With the advent of US-led coalition forces in Afghanistan and the rout of their Talibaan mentors, there was an fresh influx of foreign fighters as elements of Al-Qaeda found a safe haven in this no-go (self-imposed by the government) territory, operating at will on both sides of the Durand Line. With plenty of cash from the foreigners, with religious sentiments decrying the occupation of Afghanistan by western powers and with a heritage of spurning laws that are not essentially tribal in nature, besides being a safe haven Wana became an ideal recruiting ground from among the youth of the area. While resorting to banditry to eke out an existence is not uncommon in the tribal areas, before the Afghan War reliance was on generally obsolete weapons. Their weapons and equipment are now at par with the modern armed forces, on-the-job “training” has made them sometimes even tougher. While modern communications and intelligent exploitation of the media are major force-multipliers to their potency, the use of IEDs as a terror weapon adds a new dimension. The Soviets using booby traps in the forms of toys and other articles of daily use to kill and maim during their counter-guerilla operations in an alien land is understandable if unacceptable, that such vicious means are being resorted to by the hostiles in utter disregard of innocent local casualties among their own kith and kin is appalling. Only foreigners without any stake locally can have such venom!
Wars are nowadays not fought in only the classical sense of combat, the newest version of warfare is how to successfully exploit the media to (1) create a favorage image of oneself while (2) creating an adverse image of one’s opponent. We must be careful that in persisting with “glasnost” we do not compromise national security, Comd 11 Corp’s giving away our casualty figures has only added credibility to the rumour mills, this will be multiplied many times over. Despite it’s claim of being the world’s largest functioning democracy, India for over 50 years permitted outsiders (foreigners and nationals included) on a strictly restricted basis, if at all, into the areas of conflict. India has thus been able to keep its many insurrections under wraps. The media is absolutely barred from the long running internal conflicts in Nagaland, Manipur, Mizoram, Bodoland, etc, the bloody freedom movement in Kashmir gets almost no international attention because of this media quarantine. The Pakistani media has recently been permitted into Kashmir on a very “controlled” basis. What to talk about Kashmir, let any foreign media person report adversely about any issue, if the Indians decide this is out of line, he or she will be out of India on the next flight. The domestic Indian media treats national security with kid gloves, catch them talking about the atrocities in Kashmir, or for that matter, elsewhere in India.
The US learnt many media lessons from Vietnam where the war was lost mainly because of the bloody images on TV in the drawing rooms of mainline USA, “embedded journalists” with their troops were only allowed in Iraq once they knew the invasion was a walk-over. Why don’t the US now “embed” journalists in Falluja or Baghdad i.e. except on selective basis? In our context such an idea is absolute nonsense. One should certainly “embed” journalists with units in peacetime and (maybe) during conventional war, to allow the media access to the area of operations during a counter-guerilla warfare campaign is nothing less than madness, if not outright hari-kiri! In Wana Pakistan Army is fighting a bloody cross between classic guerilla warfare and pure terrorism, there are bound to be excesses, this can be complicated by misreporting. The political and geo-political merits and demerits (and sensitivities) of indulging in counter-guerilla operations against the wishes and feelings of the Pakistani masses notwithstanding, the operations area should be media-free. One should only have briefings like the one given recently in Peshawar, even there why talk about our own casualty figures?
The Catch-22 is that rumours can take over in an information vacuum, containing such rumours effectively is essentially the job of PR. “Damage control” is hardly possible by disclosing sensitive details to the media. The Armed Forces have to cope with horrendous factors in very difficult terrain, they need far more heli-mobility than is available. One can never be happy about fighting one’s own countrymen and in such a complex situation and in such adverse conditions, the least we can do to support our Armed Forces is not to romanticize terrorists but to shun them. It is essential that we disseminate to the public that our Armed Forces are on sound moral ground fighting a difficult battle to rid this country of the terrorist menace.