14 Dec 2009

South Waziristan – the world's most dangerous place

Pakistan’s anti-Taliban offensive in South Waziristan contradicts the widely held view in Islamabad that sooner or later Nato’s coalition in Afghanistan will have to talk to the Taliban, blogs Julian Rush.

It is the great under-reported story upon which success in Britain and America’s war in Afghanistan depends – the story of Pakistan’s war with the Taliban in South Waziristan.

How that war goes really matters, because London and Washington cannot paint the Afghan Taliban into a corner if there is no corner; just a vast expanse of wilderness along the Pakistani border, where Taliban fighters of both the Pakistani and Afghan variety can hide.

Our team spent two weeks in South Waziristan, a land described by American officials as “the most dangerous place on earth”, and they’ve come back with a report on how the Pakistanis are doing.

What they’ve found is profoundly worrying if you are in Downing Street and the White House and trying to imbue the Afghan conflict with a sense of a fresh start.

Nothing in this film is quite as it seems. Lots of gung-ho army footage of Pakistani soldiers, running around with guns and setting off hand grenades, land clearly wrested from Taliban control but little sense of achievement on the ground. No Taliban bodies, no sign of prisoners, the leading jihadists clearly having fled the coop and probably holed up in some cave in North Waziristan by now.

Pakistan’s prime minister, Yusuf Raza Gilani, either does not know what his own army is doing in South Waziristan or he does not know what to say about it publicly.

Early on Saturday he said the offensive involving 30,000 troops was over; but by the end of the same day he had changed his mind, claiming the operation was “going on quite successfully”.

I wonder whether this apparent confusion reflects a general uncertainty in Islamabad over how far the army should go – and what to tell the Americans, who are paying for the whole exercise after all.

For the Americans have given the Pakistanis over $10bn in military aid since September 11, with another $7.5bn in non-military aid approved by congress in October. And the Americans don’t want the Waziristan offensive to end until it delivers results.

I saw Gilani myself at a Downing Street press conference a couple of weeks ago. He seemed confused then, too; playing to the Pakistani gallery by claiming Osama bin Laden wasn’t in Pakistan – and thereby contradicting the CIA’s view – but also trying not to upset the British and Americans by criticising the offensive in Afghanistan.

“I personally feel that military action is not the solution to all problems” was the closest Mr Gilani got to it, a remark which reflects a widely held view in Islamabad, that sooner or later the Nato coalition will have to talk to the Taliban rather than fight them.

And this philosophy, however reasonable, does not bode well for the Pakistani army taking its offensive that much further beyond South Waziristan.

Yet Gordon Brown pins a lot of hope on the Pakistanis: “What has happened over the last few months is that, on both sides of the borders, there is now a determination that is even greater than before, with the numbers involved, to take on the terrorist threat,” he told us at that press conference.

The Americans have said the same. But tonight’s film suggests that we still don’t know just how determined the Pakistanis really are.