AL QAEDA IN THE MOUNTAINS – IN THE LINE OF FIRE

AL QAEDA IN THE MOUNTAINS

imagesIn part to be nearer to Afghanistan, in part because of the success of our campaign against them in the cities, in part to be in a remote area with natural defenses, many members of al Qaeda relocated to the mountains-specifically to the Federally Administrated Tribal Areas (FATA) in the North-West Frontier Province. The border with Afghanistan is a stretch of 850 miles (1,360 kilometers) and is home to seven main tribes, which on the Pakistan side are organized into seven tribal agencies: Khyber, Bajaur, Mohmand, Orakzai, Kurram, and the North and South Waziristan agencies. The terrain is inhos­pitable and inaccessible-rugged and mountainous, with heights rang­ing from 8,000 to 15,000 feet (2,400 to 4,500 meters), subject to harsh winters and burningly hot summers and largely devoid of roads. Dur­ing the colonial period the British were restricted to transit on just a few roads in this region, and many of those were rarely open.

 

    Under our constitution, FATA enjoys a semi-autonomous status. It is home to some 3.2 million tribal folk. It is spread over 10,600 square miles (27,220 square kilometers) and is largely governed by age-old tribal customs, with maliks, or chiefs and elders, wielding politi­cal and military influence and authority over their tribes. Although the tribes are religious, the role of the mullahs is restricted to mosques. The federal government is represented by “political agents” who exercise control through levies and through a local police force called khassadars.

   Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan cuts across tribes, dividing peo­ple with deep ethnic and social bonds. A clause in the Durand Line agreement of 1893 separating India and now Pakistan from Afghanistan, commonly known as “easement rights,” allowed cross-border social and commercial interaction for the tribes in the late decades of the British Empire. The practice continues to this day. Historically reputed to be fierce fighters who carry weapons and maintain their own arse­nals, the tribesmen of FATA have always been profoundly patriotic in their attitude toward Pakistan. They actively participated in the Kashmir war of 1948 and also contributed armed tribesmen to the Pakistan Army in its wars with India.

 

  Yet they are fiercely independent as well. It was only in 2000 that the Pakistan Army was allowed to enter all the tribal agencies for the first time ever, to build roads and to foster economic development. Our ulti­mate goal is to integrate the tribal areas politically into the North-West Frontier Province.

 

   After 9/11, the army’s strength was increased and a network of human intelligence was created in the area. When we received initial reports of al Qaeda’s presence there, we did not take them very seri­ously, and in any case the magnitude of the threat was unknown. The truth dawned on us only gradually, with increased intelligence.

 

  In December 2001, when Operation Tora Bora caused many al Qaeda and Taliban fighters to flee to Pakistan, I established a net for apprehending them. Our regular forces and the paramilitary Frontier Corps were dropped in by helicopter, as the area is quite inaccessible from the ground. We even gathered mules from all parts of the country and formed them into animal transport battalions to sustain our troops in this extremely inhospitable area, most of which has no communication infrastructure at all.

 

   The Tora Bora net led to the capture of 240 al Qaeda operatives belonging to twenty-six different nationalities, the majority from Afghanistan and the Arab countries. It remains the largest catch in a sin­gle anti-terrorist operation conducted anywhere in the world since 9/11. Since then, we have engaged in a number of operations of varying size. They have been recounted in the press in only bare outlines. The full stories, and results, show that we have made far more progress than most people know.

 

   The first big operation after Tora Bora was a real eye-opener. We called it Operation Kazha Punga, after the name of the place. It was conducted in the South Waziristan agency on the night of June 25, 2002. We received information about the presence of thirty to thirty-five al Qaeda operatives and their families in Kazha Punga. A force of 500 comprising elements of the Special Services Group (SSG), the regular infantry, and the Frontier Corps was immediately dispatched to search the area. The infantry and the Frontier Corps traveled by road through the night, over the most rugged terrain. They stopped at a distance from Kazha Punga and then marched there using local guides. The SSG was dropped at dawn using some of our scarce helicopters. We learned later that the terrorists had deployed lookouts and knew that our force was approaching.

 

   Once a cordon was established, the terrorists inside the compound started to plead innocence, saying that there were only two men and four women, one of whom was pregnant. It was a bluff. Still sounding innocent, they invited our troops to search the compound. Our troops fell for the pretense, thinking that our intelligence must have been faulty. They entered the compound without taking precautions and were met with a spray of bullets. Ten soldiers lost their lives, and two terrorists were killed. The remaining terrorists managed to escape.

 

This operation was a turning point, because it highlighted the mag­nitude and seriousness of the threat. It also confirmed the presence of foreign terrorists beyond the Tora Bora area; it confirmed, too, that they were receiving local assistance. Our men also learned, the hard way, just how disarmingly “innocent” this vicious enemy could be.

 

Operation Kazha Punga made us realize that we needed a special, fast-reacting, hard-hitting force for the mountains. In coordination with the United States’ CENTCOM and intelligence agencies, a helicopter-borne Special Operations Task Force (SOTF) was created. It was composed of a battalion from SSG made helicopter-mobile, thanks to assistance from the United States. We demanded and were assured of night-flying and firing capabilities. We also established technical intel­ligence centers in cooperation with U.S. intelligence. Unmanned aer­ial vehicles were to be made available to us on demand, flown by American handlers. This completed a triad of intelligence-human, technical, and aerial. The human responsibility was ours; the other two were under the control of the United States.

 

    Unfortunately, assistance did not materialize as promised from the United States. Its assets and intelligence took a lot longer to arrive than we were told to expect. While we trained our new force and established an intelligence network on the ground, dozens of minor operations were conducted against identified al Qaeda targets. Unfor­tunately, most of them were inconclusive. Our information was defi­cient or delayed, and our forces were much slower than al Qaeda. We simply had to have night-flight helicopters, but the promised equip­ment still did not come. In order for us to reach our targets, we had to traverse a very difficult terrain. The terrorists always had agents among the villagers and their own lookouts, with excellent communications, and would thus be warned in time to make their getaway.

 

In 2002 we made hectic efforts to establish an effective intelligence network and to strengthen the operational effectiveness of SOTF. On the intelligence side there were occasional misunderstandings between the Pakistan Army and the agencies, both American and Pakistani. The army blamed the intelligence agencies for inaccurate intelligence, while the agencies blamed the army for its slow reactions. There was truth in both claims. On many occasions our intelligence was inadequate or delayed, and often the army was slow to react. Our intentions were firm and determined, but we needed the helicopters. The United States was extremely slow in providing the promised equipment, especially helicopters, to SOTF. The Pakistan Army had to scrounge from its own limited helicopter resources from all over, and to commit its very precious helicopter gunships from its limited military operational reserves.

 

    It took more than a year to get the American helicopters for SOTF, and these were for day operations only; it took approximately another year to train and equip some of the pilots for the conduct of night operations. Gunships have still not been provided. This has led to much finger-pointing among Pakistani operatives and our American facilita­tors. Eventually, Pakistan did manage to get substantial military assistance for SOTF, and by late 2003 we were able to score some telling victories.

 

The first operation conducted by the newly raised SOTF was called Operation Baghar China. It was launched in the first week of October 2003 in the area of that name. It was supported by regular infantry ele­ments, which established blocks at the likely entry and exit points of the target compounds. While our cordon was being established, the ter­rorists started firing. Intense exchange of fire continued an entire day, until the resistance was finally overcome. A total of eight terrorists were killed, including a Jordanian named Samarkand, who was a sen­ior al Qaeda member with a bounty of $5 million on his head; and a Chinese named Hassan Masoom, who was the leader of the East Turk­istan Islamic Movement. Nineteen others were arrested, of whom eight were foreigners. This operation confirmed the presence of large numbers of foreign terrorists operating in an organized manner in the South Waziristan agency.

 

   Five months later, from March 16 to 28, 2004, a major counterin­surgency operation was conducted in the Wana valley in the South Waziristan agency. We had reports of activity by al Qaeda there. We approached the local population through their tribal councils orJirgas, asking them to surrender all foreigners. Amnesty was promised to those who surrendered. In fact, they were offered not only amnesty but also the chance to live peacefully in the tribal agencies. The response of the Jirgas was positive, and they passed our offer to the terrorists. But the foreigners refused to comply. This clearly showed that al Qaeda terrorists were very much in command of themselves and not under the dictates of the locals.

 

     So we decided to launch an operation through the Frontier Corps. When the troops reached Wana, they found themselves trapped in a cleverly laid ambush. Our forces were in a low-lying area while the ter­rorists had occupied the surrounding hills and mountains. There was a hail of fire from the mountains, and our troops suffered heavy casual-ties in men and materiel. A pitched battle ensued, with the terrorists dominating the area. The army was called in to break the ambush and retrieve the trapped men of the Frontier constabulary. Nearly 6,000 troops were immediately moved in, including 600 lifted by helicopters from a distance of approximately 190 miles (300 kilometers). These troops, in conjunction with SOTF, immediately threw a cordon around the ambush site and launched a search operation. Unfortunately, an adjacent ridge occupied by the terrorists remained outside the cor­don. The army drew heavy fire from this ridge and suffered sixteen dead.

 

We launched an attack on the ridge to clear it, and finally won thebattle. Wana was cleared of al Qaeda. This operation led to the elimi­nation of a major command and communication center of the terror­ists. We found a network of tunnels containing sophisticated electronic equipment, including a telephone exchange. All told, during the oper­ation sixty-four soldiers lost their lives and fifty-eight were injured. The terrorists’ casualties were sixty-three killed, thirty-six foreigners and twenty-seven locals.

 

The Wana operation proved to be a watershed in counter terrorism. It displayed our firm resolve and commitment despite the intensity of the opposition we faced. Nonetheless, it also exposed our continuing inadequacies in terms of night flying and insufficient helicopters, and it caused further tension in our relations with the United States. We were even denied the use of helicopters provided to our Ministry of the Interior by the United States government’s Drug Enforcement Agency during this very critical operation. It would have also been very helpful to have unmanned aerial vehicles for real-time information, but we were out of luck there too.

 

The Wana operation was the first large-scale operation by the Pa­kistan Army in South Waziristan. We reinforced the local division of our Peshawar Corps with two additional brigades. The troops had the task of keeping the Wana valley under control, establishing checkpoints on main roads and walking tracks to deny free movement to the terrorists, and chasing the terrorists beyond Wana.

 

After two additional months of operations by the Pakistan Army along our western border with Afghanistan and the Wana valley, some fleeing foreign terrorists took refuge in Shakai valley. There they began to reorganize and train themselves. We received reports of more than 200 to 250 Chechens and Uzbeks, along with a few Arabs, and 300 to 400 local supporters. On June 10, 2004, we launched the Shakai valley operation in response. It was massive, involving 10,000 regular troops combined with SOTF and Frontier constabulary troops.

 

After nearly 3,000 soldiers established an outer cordon and secured the approaches leading to Shakai, the Pakistan Air Force struck at dawn, using precision weapons against nine compounds. Indirect artillery fire and precision rocket attacks by helicopter gunships were also brought to bear. At the same time we used helicopters to drop in SOTF personnel to search the compounds. Simultaneously, infantry troops launched an operation to clear the valley and link up with SOTF. Later, an additional force of 3,000 men was brought into the area to clear more of the valley up to Sangtoi, Mangtoi, and the watershed of Bosh Narai.

 

During the operation four soldiers were killed and twelve injured; over fifty terrorists were killed. We eliminated a major propaganda base and stronghold of the terrorists, which also included a facility for manufacturing improvised explosive devices. The haul from a large underground cellar in one of the compounds included two truckloads of television sets, computers, laptops, disks, tape recorders, and tapes. It proved to be a turning point with the local tribesmen. The myth of the invincibility of the terrorists was broken and the local population with-drew its support from them. Thereafter, the local people helped the Pakistan Army to establish the authority of the government in the area. The successful conduct of this operation also forced the Waziri tribe to sign the famous Shakai Agreement with the government, after which we started development work in the area. We are concentrating on infrastructure, schools, health care facilities, and water projects for irrigation.

 

From a bird’s-eye view, our mountain campaigns have been some-thing like a landlocked version of Douglas MacArthur’s island-hopping campaign in the Pacific during World War II. We had cleared two “islands,” but our hopping was not finished. After fleeing Shakai and the border areas of South Waziristan, most of the foreign terrorists next took refuge in the Mahsud tribe’s area, where they found support. Some sixty to seventy foreigners were reported to be in the Dila Khula area. It was said to have become a major training and logistical base of the terrorists.

 

The complex there had three distinct operational and administrative bases. On September 9, 2004, an air strike was launched in which over seventy foreign and local terrorists were killed. The army launched a ground operation with approximately 10,000 regular troops, with aer­ial support, against all three strongholds. Resistance was stiff, and forty-two soldiers were martyred and 124 injured, including five officers.

Over seventy terrorists were killed. It was costly, but it was a victory. Another island was cleared.

This was a major operation, indeed the culmination of military

operations in the South Waziristan agency. With the destruction of their main command, training, logistical, and propaganda bases, the ter­rorists lost the ability to operate as a cohesive, organized body. Those who survived fled into the mountains in small groups. Their local sympathizers were badly discredited, and most of them decided to cooperate with the government. All told, the casualties suffered by the terrorists included 350 dead and 800 arrested. On our side, approxi­mately 300 soldiers laid down their lives in the war against terrorism. They will always be remembered for their supreme sacrifice.

The battle continues. Al Qaeda, though defeated in the South Waziris­tan agency, is now reported to be in the towns of Mir Ali and Miran­shah of North Waziristan agency. Our focus has thus shifted to these towns.

After all the military operations against al Qaeda, we have developed a fairly good picture of its characteristics. At its peak strength in Pa­kistan, its core comprised up to 300 battle-hardened fighters of Arab, Uzbek, Tajik, Chechen, and Afghan origin. Though we have eliminated its command, control, communication, and propaganda bases in the South Waziristan agency, it is still operating in North Waziristan. The terrorists are very well trained in hit-and-run tactics and are adept at raids and ambushes. Most of their actions are intense and swift. They are capable of putting up stiff, last-man-last-bullet resistance. They are equipped with sophisticated weapons and high-tech communica­tions, which they use efficiently for effective command and control.

Al Qaeda appears financially secure. It has attracted Pakistani fol­lowers by a combination of religious indoctrination and more straight-forward monetary incentives, including the renting of local compounds at exorbitant rates. At times, it has forcibly coerced people into support­ing it.

Gathering intelligence about al Qaeda is harder than conducting physical operations against it. All antiterrorist operations are intelli­gence-driven, but also require swift mobility by day and night and effective firepower. Unfortunately, despite our best efforts, we were not given timely access to modern technology for intelligence gathering, surveillance, and target acquisition. Our army operations remain dependent on technical intelligence provided through U.S. resources.

One very effective theme used by al Qaeda in its propaganda has been to depict its members as the true followers of Islam, and the Pa­kistan Army as infidels operating under the spell of the United States and the West. Countering this vicious propaganda was crucial, because al Qaeda’s message seemed very convincing to gullible illiterates. Com­manders of our army have had the critical task of countering the effects of such propaganda among their own rank and file. I feel proud that our army officers have kept their troops fully motivated, ingraining in them the truth that they are dealing with anti-Pakistan elements, and that religion is not an issue in the conflict.

It is often said that Pakistan is not doing enough in the war on terror. Such remarks can be made only by those who have no knowledge of the truth on the ground. Pakistan’s decision to support the global war on terror was based on its own interests. There is no reason why we would not do enough for ourselves. In fact, Pakistan is the one country in the world that has done the maximum in the fight against terrorism. We have also suffered the maximum casualties. Pakistan has made enormous sacrifices in the war on terror. We have deployed approxi­mately 80,000 troops in antiterrorist operations, and we occupy nearly 900 posts along the Pakistani-Afghan border. It is disappointing that despite our deep commitment and immense sacrifices, some people continue to tell tendentious stories casting aspersions on our counter-terrorism operations and on the contributions we have made. We have lost more men than any other country-and we fight on.

The other common accusation against Pakistan is that most of the terrorist acts inside Afghanistan are emanating from the tribal areas of Pakistan. A negative perception is growing that Pakistan abets and provides sanctuary to terrorists. This propaganda is linked with efforts to create anti-Pakistan sentiment in Afghanistan. The world at large and countries involved in the war on terror have to take a realistic view of such malicious propaganda. Pakistan’s own stability is linked with peace in Afghanistan. The Afghan government needs to focus more on improving security inside its own country instead of blaming others.

The base of the Taliban is Kandahar, in southeastern Afghanistan. Most of the terrorist operations launched against the coalition forces are

conducted deep inside Afghanistan, in places that cannot be accessed from Pakistan. While it is unavoidable, because of the terrain and the length of the border, that some terrorists-members of al Qaeda and the Taliban-must be sneaking across to Afghanistan from the Pakistan side, it is mendacious to put the blame for all of this on Pakistan. Moreover, although al Qaeda operatives are recognizable, being for­eigners, the Taliban are from Afghanistan and come from the same Pathan ethnic stock as the Pakistani Pathans. To identify friend or foe is often impossible, unless someone commits a hostile act. The reality is that most of the terrorist activity in Afghanistan is indigenous, even though some groups from Pakistan also sneak across. We need to coop­erate with each other to fight this scourge, instead of getting involved in the blame game and weakening our common cause.

Another misperception Pakistan has to contend with is that the lead­ers of al Qaeda and the Taliban are operating from Pakistan. This is nothing but conjecture, without any evidence. The mountainous ter-rain of the border belt does afford an opportunity to hide, but this is the case on the Afghan side of the border as well, because the terrain is sim­ilar there. Whereas we have an effective security mechanism on our side of the border, no such arrangement exists on the Afghan side. In large areas of the Afghan countryside, there are no military operations. Hence it is easier for anyone to hide on the Afghan side than on the Pakistan side.

All these accusations, misperceptions, and differences notwith­standing, we have covered a long distance in our joint fight against ter­rorism. Pakistan has developed a fairly good working relationship with its coalition partners in Afghanistan, and especially with the United States. We now have effective strategic, operational, and tactical coor­dination through effective intercommunications and the suitable place­ment of liaison officers.

The key question that remains is, of course, the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri. They could be in one of the tribal agencies, hiding with the help of sympathetic locals. But they could just as well be on the Afghan side enjoying the hospitality of Mullah Omar. Or they could, cleverly, be moving close to the border, alternating between Afghanistan and Pakistan, to confuse those looking for them.

Pakistan has shattered the al Qaeda network in the region, severing its lateral and vertical linkages. It is now on the run and has ceased to exist as a homogeneous force, capable of undertaking coordinated operations. Now we need to sustain the pressure, denying al Qaeda the opportunity to regroup. I can say with surety that in Pakistan we are winning the war against the terrorists. I am proud of my army for all the sacrifices its officers and soldiers have made and for the results they have produced in the defense of their nation. This war can, and wi11, be won.

 

Written by

Pervez Musharraf

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