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ISLAMABAD: Even though they say that the only thing tougher than putting a new idea into an army is taking an old idea out of it, the army adapts. The army evolves. And from what we are seeing develop from the slums of Manghopir to the nullahs of Mirali, it seems that, operationally, this army is getting its cake and maybe eating it, too.
The confidence is contagious. They’re ready, they claim, for most of what’s coming their way. Their media game: spot on [remember Major Jahanzeb’s funeral last week? It was all over the TV map]. Their optics: excellently timed [the COAS visiting the FC HQ at Balahisar days after Frontier Corps men were massacred by TTP Mohmand, which essentially triggered the end of the peace talks].
As for their day job, actual mil-ops: ask any one of them and they’ll tell you that they’re a ‘different’ force. And if you ask the right questions, they might back up with some claims, too.
Claim One: This army is a very dissimilar animal compared to the one that was around a decade ago. War has kept them busy. It has bruised and battered them, but hasn’t broken their back. The post-Siachen ‘Shahi Army’ of the ‘90s, even early 2000s - ‘PT’ at 0630, breakfast at 0730, office at 0800, out the door by 1600, ‘games’at 1700, with ‘tea breaks’ scattered in the middle - is done away with, they say.
What we have now is a hardened CT/COIN specialist with 5,000 deaths that are finally being leveraged with seriously enhanced PR [remember the toll surprisingly circulated by ISPR last week: 308 civilians, 114 military, 38 police killed since the APC of last September] and sustaining a robust pro-democracy brand that still lets the army enjoy being a think-tank, a spy network and a foreign office all rolled into one.
Yes, Military Inc lives. Yes, they still think that some proxy warriors make for an excellent tool of state ‘ideology’ and
Yes, the Balochistan narrative isn’t under their control. Yes, the ISI is still up to its not-so-funny business; but the R-word - ‘rogue’ - now brings about immediate paranoia in Aabpara where, for a change, the mention of slain journalist Saleem Shehzad is more groan-inducing than it is growl-producing.
Thus, though they’re not supremely on top of the food chain, it can be said with certainty that, for now, the army is all set to achieve its primary, tactical goal for the first quarter of 2014: winning the war for the war.
That’s why the strafing and bomb-runs are not shattering the system, nor causing a market collapse or triggering an existential debate (nobody cares about the noise the JI makes anyway, and even the PTI has learnt to zip it since the massacre of the Karachi police commandos, then the FC prisoners).
But that’s not the only reason why our chaps are all sorted with their sorties.They did, they believe, genuinely give the peace efforts a go.But, really, the talks were a win-win for both Pindi and Raiwind, whether they would have worked, gone on productively to establish a ceasefire, or not.
If peace were achieved via dialogue, then reconciliation - the new Af-Pak buzzword - could be equally trudged towards on both sides of the Durand, which would work out for the new, ‘talk, don’t just fight’ narrative that Islamabad, Pindi, Washington and Kabul (with help from Riyadh and Ankara) have almost banged out in unison. Maybe that’s why the CIA has muzzled its Predators for weeks: if talks could deliver the TTP shura to Pakistan, then perhaps Pakistan would be obliged to help deliver other shuras for the wrapping up Af-Pak.
Sub-optimally and more locally, give peace a shot, and both the government and the military would look tolerant and patient, respectively. Plus, the chaps would look fashionably subservient to Mian Sahib and Mian Sahib would look fashionably in charge of the chaps.
Alternatively, with peace not achieved after being given a shot (which is where we are at today), the chaps would unleash and bare their teeth. Meanwhile, Mian Sahib would have to scratch their back, as promised, and maybe even polish their fangs. The chaps would look tough. And Mian Sahib would look tough by association.
Summing up the peace talks for the chaps: Peace achieved? Win the war and settle Af-Pak. Peace attempted? Win the public narrative, build the pro-democracy brand. Peace not achieved? Win the moral ground, and let the guns blaze. As one military source succinctly put it “as long as our red lines were not pink lines for Mian Sahib, we were all set for peace talks. Our same-pagedness throughout the talks was key.”
Claim Two: The new swagger and purpose has got something to do with the new chief, who is less of a deliberator and more of a decider: the sort of man who doesn’t sulk in dark corners like his predecessor, but one who comes up to the center of the room, introduces himself, offers a very big hand, compliments your jacket, chugs on about his parent unit, strokes his para-wings and cracks a civilised joke about the weather, or maybe even the cavalry. He is a Piffer, after all.
When he came in, we all went on about Gen Raheel’s very limited COIN/CT experience; about how he hadn’t spent a lot of time out West and didn’t know enough about this new front; about how he wasn’t a complex enough man because he hadn’t manned an intelligence tower for the Fortress on 7th Avenue. Retrospectively, we were right about his CV, but wrong about who the war effort needed.
As we yearned for an end to the insurgency - via talking the peace talks or walking the warpath, or whatever - the ‘spy-soldier’ model of Kayani wasn’t required. We didn’t need an over-analytical chain-smoking spook, his habits twisted by his Aabpara bout, who would obsess more about checkmating political challengers from Army House than he would about his increasingly antsy formation commanders who were itching for a fight in the field.
What we needed was someone who wasn’t afraid to use the night/ISR capability of his F-16 Block52s or the infrared cannons of his AH-1F Cobras over Mirali Bazaar. Or Hasukhel. Or Tirah. Or Thal. Or Hangu. Or Bara. Yes, there would be a cost. Yes, there would be collateral damage. Yes, the mullahs would tweet and scream murder. But Raheel would break the inertia.
Peace with the TTP would either be negotiated, or bombed, or strafed. And a tangible, visible objective - the cessation/ceasefire of terror attacks - would be established as an achievable benchmark of security policy by Raheel’s new GHQ.
As for the trappings of his doctrine, Raheel’s actions remind us of that famous address by Veeru to Gabbar Singh in Sholay: “Tum Aik Maro Gey, Tau Hum Chaar Maraingey.”
Claim Three: General Raheel Sharif has managed more in three short months than what General Ashfaq Kayani couldn’t figure out in six long years: to be able to brag - genuinely brag - about being on the same page with the executive arm of a duly elected government, and let the PML-N do so vice versa, too.
The bonhomie is bizarre, really. In the Kayani/Zardari era, it wasn’t sexy, even believable, for the government and the guards to be on the same page about anything. There were too many assaults and counter-coups. Now, top cabinet members are announcing it. The PM’s office is confirming it. The Chief’s Secretariat is accepting it. The Intelligence directorates are whispering it. Even if it were not true, one is compelled to believe that it very well could be: Raiwind and GHQ are getting along. As a source assessed about the current COAS and PM, “It’s not Sharif vs Sharif. It’s Sharif plus Sharif.”
Yes, Musharraf is a serious sticking point. Yes, there isn’t a lot of congruence about Balochistan. Yes, Karachi isn’t being ‘granted’ to the Rangers like they would like. And of course, the red-line of “trade mangoes, not sovereignty” with India has embarrassingly restricted Raiwind’s MFN with New Delhi. But the show goes on. And it’s looking like a Nawaz-Raheel co-production, of sorts.
Claim Four: The war isn’t coming; the war is essentially here. The codename of the operation has already been chosen, too (more on that, soon). The use of Army Aviation and PAF in air strikes is dual:’softening up’ targets before committing to a ground assault, as well as gauging the national barometer for the combat to come.
A ranking military source who has commanded a large formation in the forward areas had a sweeping assessment about the type of fighting that is approaching: “The army is trained to fight for the terrain, for the water, for the heights. But this is a different enemy. He is faceless. Recognizing him is a battle too. With a weapon, he’s an enemy. With a CNIC that he waves at a checkpoint, he’s a citizen.”
Regarding routes of operations and security concerns: “We will have to operate in built-up [populated] areas and along the axis [of accessible locations, i.e. roads that lead through towns]. That’s where the population control has to come in. That’s where we worry about collateral [damage] issues”
“That’s why you hit the one who hits you. You try your best to evaluate the enemy and evacuate the area. You work with the friendlies to help you do that. Then you cordon. Then you tighten the noose and clear. And you don’t hold back.”
“But you don’t obsess over their leadership. A Taliban commander on the run is about as useful as a Taliban commander in the grave, because he’s disorganized.”
“And then, when you’re done with clearance, you rebuild the structures lost and bring the people back, and hand the area over to them. But that’s where the politicians and government come in. And that’s when things get complicated, because that’s when they have to sustain the control through governance that we have gained through fighting.”
A junior officer getting ready to be deployed to the forward areas had a narrower calculation of how the fighting will look: “You’re going to see force groups come into action. ‘Brigade-minus’ forces, which means two or three infantry battalions represented by a couple of companies [around a hundred men each], a troop or two of tanks [three each, probably the weathered but easy to maintain T-69s], two or three gunships, and a platoon of SSG [around 30 Special Service Group commandos] who are tasked to hunt the leadership. This is what you would do to take on a sizeable area, like a bazaar. That’s why we are pounding them from the air right now, to make sure force groups don’t take too many casualties.”
But the younger officer also had a grim view about the local population: “The fighting was similar in Swat. But we had a lot of population support then. People were sick and tired of those guys [the Taliban], and when we stood up, they stood up with us. But this area is different. The locals are different. Their perception about Pakistan is different, too, unfortunately.”
That last bit of insight from the younger officer is key. And that is why the brass is concerned and emphatic about post-battle rehabilitation.
“We have a whole div, the 45 Engineering Division, deployed here to rebuild,” said a senior officer who has served in the area. “During operations, they will assist us with movement, logistics and anti-IED ops, but when it’s all over, they will also do the rehab. Just like South Waziristan, markets, roads, schools and even homes will be constructed. We’re going to put a lot of money into making North [Waziristan] look better than it’s ever been.”
Claim Five: This ‘mop up operation’ in NWA is over-hyped. The space the TTP and Co have won in the national narrative makes them look larger than they really are. It’s not the Taliban we need to be worried about. It’s the long war against extremism that not just the army, but the government and the country will have to fight.
“Especially the provincial governments,” specified a ranking military officer, hinting at the one and only PTI.
Regardless of the politics, it’s ironic that a top military source made this claim. But that’s the beauty of the Pakistan Army. They were the first to really screw-up on the extremism front, but they’re now leading the charge to fix it. It’s the classic case of the heart surgeon who smokes himself. But this heart surgeon claims he’s done smoking, and we should quit, too.
The Fighting Formations: As for who will do the fighting, this is what the ‘Force Matrix’ of the largest field formation in the country would look like:
The XI Corps: In another world and at another time, this was one of the smaller formations the army had. But the XI Corps has now swelled up to become the largest one in the country, with at least seven divisions working under it.
The Divisions: Each division has around three to four brigades, with each brigade having around three to four units, and each unit has around 800 or so men in it (it depends on the arms, fighting or supporting, involved). The ISPR claims over 150,000 troops are committed to the western front, compared to less than 100,000 on the eastern front with India.
The main combatant inside North Waziristan is the 7th Division.
Also called “The Golden Arrow”, this is a strike formation actually based in Miranshah, and the oldest division in the Pakistan Army. So far, the 7th has kept Pakistan’s flag fluttering in NWA, though they’ve been listening more and fighting less.
The 9th Division, headquarted in Wana, will cover the southern corridor through the Razmak axis in South Waziristan when the militants start doing what they do best: moving from NWA into SWA.
The 40th Division, forward-based in Jandola, South Waziristan, will cover the southeast. They will also protect mainland Pakistan and Punjab from penetration when the operation triggers population movement.
The 37th Division, a leading strike division, will come from Swat/Shangla, and could be supported/alternated by another strike formation, the 17th Division. These will be “on rent” from the I Corps, in Mangla.
The 19th Division (covering Orakzai, Khyber, Bajaur) that watches the northern axis will come from ‘the top’.The 45th Engineering Division, already in the mix with elements of the FWO, will provide operational and post-operational support and ‘rehab and rebuild’ for the transfer stage.
The Frontier Corps KP, which is a division-sized formation, led by a two-star major general like all the other divisions, is made up of local Pashtun tribesmen and commanded by Army officers; a spearhead in the war so far, but also heavy hit and still lacking the standards of the regular army, they will assist throughout the region, especially the borders.
Dedicated aviation assets, like MI-17s for heli-borne assaults for airborne attack elements and AH-1S/F Cobra gun ships for close air support (CAS) will be provided by the XI Corps. Meanwhile, PAF will provide air-to-surface protection from its various air-bases, particularly assets based in Peshawar.Thus, the war will begin. Or perhaps even end.