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Pakistan war on Taliban 'has only just begun'

By Channel 4 News

Updated on 14 December 2009

As Pakistan battles militant insurgency in South Waziristan, a Channel 4 News/ITN team finds that this may just be the start of the battle to defeat the Taliban.

On 17 October the Pakistani army launched its much awaited operation to drive the Taliban from South Waziristan, the heartland of the Pakistani Taliban. From there they launched a bombing and terror campaign which engulfed the whole of Pakistan.  

We, the Channel 4 News/ITN team, were the first foreign journalists to be fully embedded with the army.

Media coverage of the operation was virtually impossible as journalists were banned from reporting from the area except for "day trips" which the army set up a couple of weeks into the operation.

As we had made a programme earlier in the year about the army action in Swat which had pleased the generals, we managed to get embedded after all the "clearances".

In the second week of November, we were flown from Peshawar to the army base in Jandola in South Waziristan, the starting point of the army operation entitled "road to salvation".

"Battle of the beards"
Along with a cameraman/director and an assistant, we shared a room in the officers' mess in Jandola base with at least six army officers (two of them colonels and two majors), making nine of us sleeping on a combination of two beds and mattresses and sharing one bathroom.

Entrances to all the rooms were blocked with piles of sandbags as the base had been struck with over 50 rockets fired by the Taliban only a couple of weeks earlier.

We discussed the army action and other political issues well into the night. It felt like a camping trip but the sound of distant artillery was a reminder that this was no picnic.

One of the colonels was head of logistics responsible for all troop movements. From his laptop and satellite phone, he controlled the progress of any army convoy or vehicle moving in any direction in the area.

All the officers who shared the room with us sported a beard and were devout Muslims. One colonel jokingly called the operation "the battle of the beards" as it was a fight about what constitutes a good Muslim, as the Taliban always claimed the religious moral ground and claimed the longer the beard and the shorter the moustache made the better the Muslim.

Foreign intervention
Army officers of various ranks came and went, and discussions with them, as well as others with pilots and other soldiers over the next few weeks, revealed their mindset.

Nearly every officer who discussed the situation was convinced there was foreign involvement helping or at least in arming the Taliban. They were astonished at the amount of weaponry that had been seized from the Taliban some of which had Indian marking, proof enough that India was providing the Pakistan Taliban with logistical support.

When I tried to point to the contradictions in that claim, I was thought to be naive and not understanding the complexity of the politics of the subcontinent. 

Most of them are also convinced that America was complicit with India in helping the Taliban.

When I expressed exasperation at that claim, they argued back that American intentions are to create a civil war-like situation in Pakistan so that the US can send in their troops and take out Pakistan's nuclear assets.

This distrust of American intentions is widespread in political and even government circles in Pakistan. Despite huge American aid and close traditional ties with the US over decades, Pakistanis in general have a serious distrust of American intentions and this propaganda victory of the Islamists in Pakistan is their greatest success.

Even a government minister told me over a private dinner that he believes the Americans are involved in helping the Taliban in Pakistan, and pointed out to the removal of Nato posts from the border when Pakistan launched its action in South Waziristan.

Elusive enemy
From Jandola, a local commander, Brigadier Shafique, took us by helicopter to a high ridge called Kund which had been taken from the Taliban a day earlier. The shrubs on the hill were still smouldering and there was a feeling among the soldiers on board with us that our helicopter might have been fired upon before landing.

From Kund ridge we were able to hear the sound of helicopters' gunships and artillery exchange in the distance, and there couldn’t be many sites in the world more inhospitable than this.

Having learned from its previous incursions into Waziristan which had ended in humiliating defeats, the army adopted a different strategy.

This time their plan was to take the high ridges first by mounting aerial attacks with F16 jets on Taliban anti-rocket and anti-helicopter gun batteries. Once these were taken out, helicopter gunships could provide cover for the troops on the ground to take the main ridges and high ground. 
A couple of days later a heavily armed convoy took us to the town of Kotkai, a couple of hours' drive through the heartland of the Taliban leaders, Hakeemullah Mehsud and Qari Hussain, the mastermind of suicide bombers.

The entire village had been raised to rubble and we were shown the network of tunnels and caves through which the Taliban made their escape to avoid capture. Despite our requests to see bodies or evidence of Taliban fighters taken as prisoners, the army was not able to show one body or prisoner and has not done so to date to any other journalist or media.

When we accompanied the army to the northern front where no other journalist had been taken, from Razmak near North Waziristan to the town of Makin, there was the same devastation: buildings reduced to rubble and other evidence of heavy artillery bombardment. Again there were no prisoners.

However, we were taken to the destroyed house of Baitullah Mehsud and a compound nearby where suicide bombers were trained. Here the walls had been painted with pictures depicting their view of heaven awaiting the would be martyrs, with maidens frolicking in rivers of milk as promised in the Quran and slogans written in the blood of Taliban prisoners  paying homage to their suicide bombers as well as insults to Pakistani leaders.

In just under eight weeks the Pakistani army has blown the myth of Taliban invincibility and has taken control of the main towns and roads of South Wazirsitan.

Meanwhile the Taliban forces have strategically melted away without offering too much resistance into North Waziristan and other tribal areas.

Over the winter and spring I would guess that the Taliban intend to launch a counter insurgency which will last a lot longer and with a lot more pain not just for the army but the whole of Pakistan.

We are not approaching the end of the operation; this is just the start.

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