Remote region central to AfPak war
by Salim Mansur
Following the recent attack by Taliban militants on the Pakistan army headquarters in Rawalpindi within the vicinity of the capital Islamabad, the Interior Minister Rehman Malik announced the imminence of much discussed military offensive in Waziristan.
Since the fall-winter of 2001 when the Taliban regime of Mullah Omar in Afghanistan was swiftly demolished by American forces and al-Qaida militants including Osama bin Laden escaped into the mountains, Waziristan has been the main sanctuary for Islamists.
This is a semi-autonomous tribal area within Pakistan adjoining Afghanistan, and home to notoriously ferocious warriors in that nearly inaccessible mountainous region.
In serving as the safe area and strategic base for Islamists, Waziristan has been the key factor in Taliban resurgence within Afghanistan during the past two years.
It is also a safe haven for militants of the various Islamist groups inside Pakistan that are linked to each other, and over the years have been surreptitiously and cynically nurtured by the intelligence wing of the Pakistani military.
Waziristan is not only Pakistan's headache – and the reason why the Afghan war, in which Canada is involved as part of the NATO mission, cannot be decisively ended – it is also the principal source of terrorist threat to democracies in the region (India) and beyond.
Here Islamists waging war in the Middle East, Central Asia, Kashmir, North Africa or planning for attacks in the West gather to recuperate and prepare.
This is not an entirely new situation for Waziristan. Its role as safe haven for jihadists (Islamist warriors) goes a long way back.
In the early years of the last century Lord Curzon, Britain's viceroy in India, observed, 'No patchwork scheme – and all our present schemes are mere patchwork – will settle the Waziristan problem. Not until the military steamroller has passed over the country from end to end, will there be peace. But I do not want to be the person to start that machine.'
Curzon was well aware of Britain's earlier military setbacks in Afghanistan and, strategically speaking, there was little incentive to extend her rule westward beyond the Hindu Kush mountains. Afghanistan was left alone in its wild and unruly condition as a strategic buffer-state between British India and Russia.
But 9/11 demonstrated the peril of ignoring a distant buffer-state such as Afghanistan which could be converted into a base of operation for jihadists.
The subsequent war to secure Afghanistan has shown why this effort will fail unless Waziristan is dealt with in the manner, as Curzon knew it was necessary, for any lasting solution to peace and security in the region.
After 9/11 Pakistan's military conducted a half-hearted four-year campaign in Waziristan that ended in a truce with tribal leaders in 2006.
The military had reluctantly endured heavy casualties in the sort of counter-insurgency campaign it was not trained to fight, and it did not believe in fighting since its entire operational thinking has been directed to waging war with India as Pakistan's mortal enemy.
All roads of Islamist terror may well lead to Waziristan, but it remains improbable that Pakistan's political and military leaders will unleash the 'military steamroller' given their fears of unintended consequences undermining perhaps irreparably a deeply divided country.