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November 18, 2014

The ghosts and gains of North Waziristan

November 18, 2014

MIR ALI: 313 Brigade Headquarters, North Waziristan: This cantonment dates back to 1895; every army, including the British, that came here was not welcome outside the fort, which hasn’t changed much since: single storey buildings with imperial insignia merged with the Islamic slogans of the Pakistani military sit across barren lawns; this is not like a city’s well-kept cantonment, with manicured gardens that the army is proud of; this is a forward area base where the grass is left patchy because sniper and rocket attacks still occur. It’s around 30 degrees, Celsius. There is no humidity.

The base throbs with uniforms of regular infantry battalions; yet, it is the human heart of a ghost town. Outside, Mir Ali has changed. North Waziristan has been taken, but at a cost: The entire city of Mir Ali has been depopulated through what Major General Zafarullah Khan Khattak, the General Officer Commanding of the 7th Infantry Division and the man in charge of Operation Zarb-e-Azb (“Strike of the Prophet’s Sword”), calls “an organised exodus”.

Earlier in the summer, when the operation was launched, weeks of air strikes, ground attacks and penetrating local militant networks with human and signals intelligence were not enough. Nor were the “strangulation operations” that had kicked off before the official campaign was launched on the 30th of June. ‘NWA’ was a different challenge from Swat, assessed the brass. The local population was “entrenched in a decade-long economy of terror” that made them “invested in the anarchy” that was North Waziristan, says General Khattak.

Since then, some 700,000 civilians have been displaced. Around 1,800 terrorists have been killed or captured. Around 200 tons of IEDs and ordnance have been found, “enough for the militants to keep on conducting five IED attacks per day, at a rate of three casualties per attack, for 14 and half years, anywhere in Pakistan or

the region”, says the general. As for sheer firepower, the GOC assesses that “there were enough arms and ammunition in the area to raise an entire infantry brigade.”

To date, the army has lost 45 men in the campaign and sustained 155 casualties. Three would be killed on the same night that this correspondent was in North Waziristan, over the last weekend, when Operation Zarb-e-Azb would be completing its 138th day. Naturally, standing on the perimeters of the base, the junior officers are watchful.

“That’s Shahbaz Top. We still take rockets and sniper fire from there,” says Brigadier Azhar Abbasi of the 313 Brigade, sipping tea while wearing his armour, his radio set crackling, looking over the bombed out town, pointing to a peak. “They’re not civilised, the Tangos [army code for Taliban], but they are bloody good shooters. I’ve lost three men from shots that came from over 1,100 yards. All head shots, two of them in the nose. Dragunovs are their weapon of choice...Excellent weapons. But terrible men.”

Driving through Mir Ali: In the armored SUV, the general’s American M4 carbine keeps hitting my knee; we are going over dirt, debris, and rubble, mostly; his Gold Leaf cigarettes sit in a leather holder with a plastic lighter that rattles against the hissing communication equipment; there are no markings on his vehicle, no fancy stars to adorn his rank, in case there are snipers still around to target him. Unlike most men his rank, General Khattak’s baton-holder, stuck on the dash, is empty. Instead, he’s carrying a Turkish 9mm Sarsilmaz semi-automatic in a shoulder holster with two extra magazines. Ceremony takes a back seat in Mir Ali.

In the 10-minute drive through the bazaar, there’s not much but rows upon rows of houses and shops flattened by air strikes and artillery; signs of close quarter combat remain; bullet holes and craters on both sides of the two lane main street of the town are the last indications of activity; handmade shop signs, some burnt out, are reminders of the trade that once thrived here - hardware stores, butcher shops, tailors - but the general says that this was only part of the commercial proceedings.

“There was an ‘IED Bazaar’ where you could buy anything from a suicide-bomb jacket with 50 kilos of explosives to a VBIED [vehicle-borne improvised explosive device, or car bomb],” says Khattak. “You could, from a good dealer, even pick the type of colour you wanted for the vehicle that was to be your 2,000 pound car bomb”.

There is a gas station on the main road that has the Shell corporate logo rocketed through; a UAE driver’s licence belonging to a man - Subeskar Gul - is on the ground among empty cans of energy drinks and shattered glass. Maybe he was getting gas when the fighting started? Maybe he was fighting?

The security officer, Lt. Colonel Jawad Bajwa of the 54 Baloch Regiment, sorts it out: “They gave us quite a fire-fight here,” he says. “They took over the cashier’s office and pounded rockets at us from there. It took most of the night to take care of them. They’re tough, the Ubzeks. And they ran this city, with a lot of local support.”

“The Uzbeks had an interesting strategy of inculcating fear,” continues the colonel. “They lived and hunted in pairs. Two of them would ride into town on motorbikes and clear out a corner by not saying anything, just glaring. They didn’t show their faces. They didn’t hold funerals for their dead. They didn’t even put flowers or markings during the burial. Their graves remained unknown and hidden. As if they just would vanish into immortality.”

The Torture Cell: Like any other Pashtun house in the Af-Pak border regions, this one has a dried mud and thatched roof structure, where the gate is the strongest part of the building, as Pashtuns are a fiercely private people; an open courtyard leads to a 20 by 10 feet room, with a 15 foot ceiling, but once inside, there are few signs of local culture: a flag of Iraq hangs; jihadist literature, in Russian, Turkish, Uzbek, Turkmen and Arabic, captured by the army, is lined up neatly in one corner, including a booklet with what resemble ISIS [Islamic State in Iraq and Syria] markings; there is a notebook with a handmade doodle of terror: an ISIS flag adorned by a chilling announcement in a Farsi variant: “Blood Avenges Blood” and “Death for America”, complete with an AK-47, a scimitar and a helicopter, all dripping blood.

A made-in-USA military jacket hangs on the wall, next to empty pistol holsters; out of place are a stash of Bollywood audio cassette tapes, thrown together with tapes of Quranic recitations; the jihadist house also has a bunch of recovered photographs, of fighters posing with their weapons, Photoshopped upon images of lush gardens and pastures, to represent heaven, or perhaps home; but there are signs of disturbance, too: some burnt CDs; which are claimed as destroyed evidence; a laminated list of instructions from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan on rejecting use of media, including personal computers, cell phones, and MP4 players, due to them increasing “moral mischief”. This place has ‘militant hang-out’ written all over it, along with a warning spray-painted on the wall: “The Tahreek [Movement] of Taliban is Alive”, a reminder to those who would eventually see this room, sans the terrorists.

But in another corner is a set of chains, hanging from the ceiling; its purpose was to tie up prisoners, explains an intelligence officer; there is a collection of whips and knives and some surgical tools which are claimed as torturing equipment.

“Almost every household here was infected by the economy of terror,” says Brigadier Azhar Abbasi. “Regular folk here maintained a basement with a torture chamber or a private jail in their house, because they would hold hostages for kidnapper networks in the mainland...A hostage from Karachi or Lahore [Pakistan’s main cities] would end up in the basement of a shopkeeper here, tucked away from the grip of the law, waiting for his ransom...almost every family depended on abduction, crime, narcotics, gun-running, smuggling or terror economy, directly or indirectly.”

“The ultimate solution will be legal and economic”, adds Abbasi. “But first we need to disinfect and disconnect this place from the profitable mechanisms of terror.”

There is a cache of weapons, too: srms, old and new, sophisticated and small, mostly Russian but even Indian, with homemade IED-manufacturing equipment, have been recovered from all over this compound.

“There is a big gun culture in this region. Every Pashtun man is allowed a weapon in his own domain, even minus a licence” explains General Khattak, himself a Pashtun. “It’s a proud tradition to carry a weapon. But to bury fully greased SMGs [sub-machine guns] in your backyard? That’s not tradition. That’s terrorism.”

Both sides of the torture cell have houses that have been bombed out in an air strike; the remaining effects of a family - a suitcase filled with personal belongings - a woman’s shoes, a child’s toy plane, a lipstick, a vanity, even a science book and a blanket - lies in the rubble.

“The north and south of this hideout were protected by residential compounds of Uzbeks to escape detection,” explains General Khattak. “They would camouflage and protect the horror that was happening here.”

“Do not be mistaken, there was some, but very negligible, collateral damage,” explains Brigadier Abbasi. “But everybody, good and bad, took advantage of the exit routes we allowed. Our intercepts tell us that many Tangos are now in the TDP [temporarily displaced persons] camps in Bannu. Our intel shows us mounds of hair they cut and shaved to fit in with the locals during the movement. There were loopholes, and they took advantage of them...And the locals let them.”

The IED Factory: The ‘front’ of the IED factory is ironic; it’s a medical clinic lying on Mir Ali Bazaar’s main street; a marble plaque claims it was inaugurated by the local political agent in 1956, when this volatile tribal area was relatively peaceful; the outside room facing the street has posters warning against malaria, with a box of mints, once meant for visitors, scattered all over the floor, along with furniture and documents; the place looks like it has been through layers of hurried searches.

A walk through the inner courtyard that is shaded by eucalyptus trees shows signs of a severe gunfight; the main clinic’s walls are pockmarked by bullets and grenade splinters; inside are maps of Pakistan’s provinces, heavy ordnance, a globe of the world, a refrigerator, IED-manufacturing material and guides, lab equipment, a white-board with an IED-making formula in a Cyrillic variant written with a dry-erase marker, wigs for disguise and, of course, suicide-bomb jackets.

“We took this place down,” says Lt. Colonel Jawad Bajwa of the 54 Baloch as he points to the wall that his troops blew up before storming the compound. The 54 Baloch Regiment has an interesting motto: ‘First to Guard’, given after it became the initial battalion to be the guard of honour at the Quaid’s Mausoleum. But Bajwa’s unit was also the vanguard in the 12-day offensive that saw Mir Ali fall during Zarb-e-Azb in July.

“It took us an afternoon. Here, life’s about aggression versus more aggression, tactics versus superior tactics. In a street to street fight, strategy was beyond us.”

Perhaps it was due to that aggression why Operation Zarb-e-Azb, which was “meant to take key parts of North Waziristan in 90 days, was essentially over by the 52nd day”, says General Khattak.

America, America: Everyone has been talking about a recent Pentagon report that said the Pakistani military hasn’t done enough to take on the militants. The bad press is hovering like a shadow over the officers, in spite of recent gains made by troops using American-made MRAPS - heavy IED-resistant vehicles that the army badly needs - 20 of which have been provided by the US.

“If this is not enough, what is?” asks General Khattak on the drive to the airstrip. We drive past Jalal Post, named after a major who held off over a 100 Uzbeks with a platoon of soldiers for almost an entire day, eventually losing his life to an Uzbek sniper in the Battle of Mir Ali, also called Operation Badal 1.

“Our officers-to-men killed ratio is 1:12”, raps the general. “That’s high, maybe the highest for any active in-combat army this century, and we’re very proud of it. And with this (he points to the rubble that is Mir Ali all around) I’ve managed to achieve the first tenet of COIN [counterinsurgency] operations: displacing the terrorists. They have no sanctuary. Because 90 percent of North Waziristan is now past tense for them, and under our control.”

There are still gaps, however. Various theories circulate about where the leaders of the Haqqani Network vanished. Some place them in Parachinar and its environs in the northern agency of Kurram. Some send them down to the Pashtun belt of Balochistan, or beyond the border. Some even place them in Rawalpindi and Karachi. Most officers admit that the Haqqani question is ‘above their pay grade’. But Major General Khattak is very clear.

“If push comes to shove, I would even suggest that the Americans put together a team of forensic experts and come over here to see what we’ve done, to the infrastructure of terror and even the Haqqanis,” he says, lighting up a smoke. “Let us stop writing reports from Washington and do some real fact-finding, shall we?”

On the domestic front, Hafiz Gul Bahadur, the local Wazir warlord who, a senior officer admits, “is our own creation, nothing but a thug who became a monster, thanks to us” and his sub-commander, Sadiq Noor, are on the run. Zarb-e-Azb has thus morphed into a ‘hunt-mode’, where entire battalions have been tasked to search and destroy ‘GB’ and his cohorts; Sadiq Noor keeps on crossing over from across the border, but GB is dug in hard somewhere around southwestern North Waziristan.

The Americans, too, are utilising the vacuum and flux. Drones are still targeting the areas where the Pakistan Army has not yet managed to reach. Most of these are along the Dattakhel axis, running like a hammerhead along the border, along the southwestern and northwestern corner of the agency, which is high terrain and adjacent to the volatile Afghan “P2K” region (Paktia, Paktika and Kunar) and, of course, the treacherous Shawal Valley in the south, where many of the insurgents have escaped, but in small groups, to avoid easy detection.

Even though he won’t commit on where his forces lie on the matrix of completing the mission, General Khattak has a swagger of confidence: “We’ve reduced their ability to strike. Their tactics have deteriorated and become less complex. We listen to them all the time, on the intercepts. We can hear their pain. And we are enjoying it.”

7th Division Headquarters - Miranshah, North Waziristan:

A year ago, what is now the army’s largest division - almost equivalent to three regular divisions, or around 45,000 men - was but a shade of what it is now. The 7th Infantry Division - the Pakistan Army’s oldest, its ‘Golden Arrow’ - was holed inside the Miranshah Fort for years, since 2003. Outside, peace agreements and under-the-table deals with North Waziristan’s powerful warlords allowed it to move around just once a week, and forced it to tolerate IED, suicide and rocket attacks around the year.

But with Operation Zarb-e-Azb, the army is finally beginning to act like a counter-insurgent military machine.

The proof is displayed in the massive front lawn of the division’s headquarters. A symmetrical display of seized weapons, communication equipment, ordnance, IEDs, intelligence, and even American and other NATO military uniforms is crowned by two vehicles: One is an American-made military Humvee, a khaki Hummer with bullet holes from across the border, complete with Afghan National Army markings and communication equipment, which was used as a “VIP car by the Haqqani Network”, claims General Khattak. The other is a functional, foliage-green pick-up truck with Afghan National Police markings.

Sophisticated flow-charts and bar-graphs shared by the 7th Division show that Zarb-e-Azb has shown remarkable gains: A decreasing trend in the number of terrorist attacks and military/civilian casualties, nationwide, with less than 50 terror-related incidents since the campaign was launched, causing less than 600 casualties and around 150 fatalities, including the attack on the Wagah border earlier this month.

But details about Operation Khyber 1, which is the new and unannounced kinetic build-up in parts of the Khyber tribal agency, are more oblique.

“Khyber 1 is not an afterthought,” defends Khattak, putting his armoured SUV into gear as we begin to head to Miranshah. “Yes, there were unexpected consequences of the flux and reorganisation of militants after Zarb [-e-Azb].”

“This included splintering. Omar Khalid Khorasani [the commander of the Mohmand chapter of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan] was always ambitious, bickering with Fazlullah [the emir of the TTP] over leadership and control...he went his own way when he reinvigorated Ahrar-ul-Hind [a new militant group that is operating out of Khyber]. This was to carve his own identity, his own brand. Before he gets there, Khyber 1 has been designed to get to him. Simple.”

The Media Centre: Outside, in Miranshah town, the Taliban’s media effort is on full display. Once a small school house, the Taliban made this their ‘Media Center’; a three-room communication enterprise: one room filled with digital recording devices, cameras and computers, where DVDs of training and propaganda videos were processed; the other an archives and audio room with sound mixers and mics; the third, the grandest room, is what a young officer refers to as the ‘Suicide Studio’, where soon-to-be suicide-bombers would record their famous last words; this last room has a lush carpet and velvet cushions, with Taliban’s stark black and white flag in the background; there are even light-stands to complete the terrible last taping of terrorists.

“Don’t be overwhelmed by the religious symbolism,” warns Brigadier Azhar Abbasi. “Beards were a fashion here, too. We’ve found booze, we’ve found hash, we’ve found all sorts of lewd movies on CDs. These guys did not have a one-track mind about jihad.”

Terror, Underground: The ride through Miranshah Bazaar is longer than the one through Mir Ali. The destruction is worse, too. The signature of ordnance from all sorts of platforms and weapons - fighter-bombers, helicopter gunships, field artillery, IEDs, RPGs and small arms - can be detected; there is a pup walking alone; and a thin cat, sipping water from a puddle; but yards upon yards of shops and houses have been bombed out; there are no signs of life.

“Drone-proof, fool-proof and weather-proof” is how General Khattak describes the Taliban’s ‘Underground Headquarters’ as we pull up to a stop: Built as a subterranean labyrinth in the basement of the main mosque in the heart of Miranshah Bazaar, with over 40 rooms connected by zigzagging tunnels, “Tango HQ”, as an intel officer put it, was a secretariat, a command and control centre, a communication hub, a recording studio, a guest house, and even included solitary chambers for conditioning suicide-bombers (tiny, secluded rooms with pictures of heaven depicted on digitally-printed plastic backdrops).

Upstairs, the regular business of prayer was conducted, with worshippers of all ages coming and going from all over Miranshah; downstairs, senior Taliban commanders would enjoy television, internet, air-conditioners, the equivalent of a canteen, and underground access to various sections of the city.

Now, the army has ‘sanitized’ the area; all the rooms have been stripped empty; lavish Afghan rugs and blankets have been torn apart for intelligence; some remnants, like cell phone batteries and a ‘dandasa’, the herbal stick that locals use to brush their teeth in tradition of the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) in lieu of toothpaste, are still lying around; a walking cane with electric tape wrapped around it is unattended on the ground; an empty Pepsi bottle and some plastic glasses that would have gone with some Talibans’ last meal are scattered; to underscore the change of guard, the Army Engineers have spray painted a big ‘OK’ outside every door and enclave, indicating that there are no booby traps or IEDs in the labyrinth’s several rooms. It’s cooler here, than upstairs, in the city.

The Man-Eating Bazaar: The kitchen of the underground ‘Tango HQ’, like any kitchen in the world, has cabinets and shelves; but a row of these swings open to reveal a tunnel, through which come both a cool draft and a terrible smell; there is some light, at the end.

“That’s the executive access route to the Adam Khor [Man Eating] Bazaar”, says an intelligence officer. “It’s where the unwanted and the unwelcome were beheaded, and left to rot, decapitated for days...Their bodies were not allowed to be buried, and they used to stink up the bazaar, as a lesson for all and sundry.”

“The smell still hasn’t gone away, even though we cleared the bodies weeks ago.”

Saying farewell on the airstrip, as his overused combat-aviation AH-1 Cobras are being inspected after a post-operation sortie, Major General Khattak keeps up the official narrative: the fight will be long; it will have to be a national effort; it will require all facets of civilian and military thinking to come up with creative solutions.

But then, the Pashtun and the soldier reflect. “Whether it is rethink of the FCR [the Frontier Crimes Regulation that rules the Federally Administered Tribal Areas], or economic solutions, or good governance, we must understand what rules these people. The local code of Cholwashti [locals protecting their own land honourably] has to be brought back. What’s always worked must work again. And for those who don’t follow the local custom...We must kill them. We must fight them to the death.”

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