The battle for Pakistan has finally started in earnest along the northwest frontier. After months of warning of an impending attack, the Pakistani military moved into South Waziristan this weekend to stamp out the Pakistani Taliban (TTP), which is allied with al Qaeda and allows the terrorist group to operate from the region. The Army bulked up the division entrusted with the task, supplementing it with troops and helicopters from North Waziristan, and local regiments from the Frontier Corps. The aim was to encircle and destroy the TTP in the southeastern third of Waziristan, where some 10,000 well-armed and battle-hardened militants are hiding.
But despite the reinforcements, the force trying to root out the entrenched militants is still not fully equipped or ready for mobile warfare. After more than eight years of involvement in the U.S.-led war against militants in Afghanistan, Pakistan still does not have all the weapons or assistance that it needs to do the job right.
The Pakistani forces are facing a more desperate and dangerous TTP. Since the powerful TTP chieftain Baitullah Mehsud was killed by a U.S. drone strike in August, the movement's new leaders have endeavored to establish their own credentials. Their attacks -- such as those on the general headquarters of the Army in Rawalpindi and on police offices in different cities in the Pakistani heartland -- have become more audacious and open.
The TTP-al Qaeda militancy has also become more dangerous due to the active participation of Punjabi terrorist groups. In years past, these Islamist extremists operated under the auspices of Inter-Services Intelligence, Pakistan's powerful military spy agency, fighting against Indians in Kashmir. Now, following Pakistan's attempt at reconciliation with India over Kashmir, they have gone rogue. The Army lacks the capacity and willingness to open a new front in Punjab, where the militants are based in small towns and some cities. But it can do much damage to the Taliban-al Qaeda nexus in South Waziristan.
The Army has attempted to stop the anti-TTP operation from becoming an all-out tribal feud, though. Following the pattern of the offensives into Swat and Malakand earlier this summer, it encouraged neutral Mehsud tribesmen to leave the battle area. Thousands of internal refugees moved south last week, as the Pakistan Air Force pounded targets with F-16s and other aircraft to prepare the ground for the Army assault. Given the complex terrain, it is not clear how successful those bomb runs have been. If the ground offensive slows down over the next few days, it will signal that the militants have dug deep into the mountains and will exact a heavy toll on advancing forces. Some of them, including al Qaeda elements, might even head into Afghanistan to regroup, buying off the area's Wazir and Bhittani tribesmen along the way. If the going is easier, then it is likely that the al Qadea and the TTP leadership has slipped away to seek refuge in northeastern Afghanistan, leaving behind booby traps and mines and a rearguard to fight against the invading Army.
Co-opting some of the Mehsud was a smart move, but it meant the Army lost the element of surprise. It will have to decide this war by sheer force of will and firepower, enduring heavy losses. And even if it wins the ground battle and occupies TTP territory, it might end up being a short-lived win. The Army is not trained or equipped to "hold" the area. There is no civilian force to police the territory, nor is there a judiciary to provide good governance; indeed, over the past eight years, Pakistan's government has failed to provide itself with anything other than military solutions to such problems. Both ousted autocrat Gen. Pervez Musharraf and the current government (which has retained the general's centralized powers) have entirely failed to strengthen their civilian capacity.