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In Pakistan, Offensive Rages Against Insurgents

October 19, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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The Pakistani army continues to fight insurgents in the rugged hills of South Waziristan near the Afghan border. Judy Woodruff speaks with experts for more.
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JIM LEHRER: That follows the Pakistan offensive against the Taliban and al-Qaida.

Judy Woodruff has our story.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Fighting between the Pakistan army and insurgents is now in its third day in the rugged hills of South Waziristan, a region that borders Afghanistan. Some 30,000 Pakistani troops have taken on more than 10,000 militants.

Pakistan’s Air Force is also bombing insurgent positions. More than 100,000 civilians have fled the combat.

For more on the military campaign, we go to retired Pakistani Lieutenant General Talat Masood. He’s written extensively about security and political issues in Pakistan. And Robert Grenier was head of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center and chief of station in Islamabad. He helped to plan the covert operation to oust the Taliban and al-Qaida from Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks. He’s now chairman of ERG Partners, a financial consulting company.

Gentlemen, thank you both for being with us.

And, General Masood, to you first.

What is it that the Pakistanis are trying to accomplish? What do they want to do here?

LT. GEN. TALAT MASOOD: Well, as you know, that, firstly, I think they want to reoccupy the territory which they have lost to the Taliban.

And the government has no control over that area. The Taliban have become very assertive. They more or less control most of it. So, I think what the Pakistan government is trying to do, after having softened the targets and trying to sort of really make sure that there are no exit and entry points left from where they could escape, what they’re trying to do now is to launch a very major offensive, which they have done, with more or less at full strength.

And they’re trying to then make sure that they’re either eliminated or captured. And they have also have been targeting their training camps. They have also been targeting their leadership. So, it’s a very major offensive, something very different to what has been in the past. This is a very serious matter, because South Waziristan is really the center of gravity of all, you know, what we have been hearing about the militants in Pakistan.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Robert Grenier, what do we know about how it’s going so far?

Fighting likely to escalate

Robert Greiner
Former CIA Official
The military, thus far, has been saying that the -- the casualties and the fighting has been surprisingly light thus far. But I think that, before long, we're going to see some heavy fighting in that area.

ROBERT GRENIER: Well, we're only getting limited reports at this point. There's very little independent reporting coming out from South Waziristan.

The military, thus far, has been saying that the -- the casualties and the fighting has been surprisingly light thus far. But I think that, before long, we're going to see some heavy fighting in that area.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And -- and -- and is it your understanding that they're going after all the Taliban in that area, part of the Taliban? What -- what -- what is your understanding?

ROBERT GRENIER: Well, the -- even if we're talking about only the Pakistani Taliban, that is a very loose organization made up of a number of disparate groups that are combining their efforts and trying to coordinate their activities.

This, however, is the major part of the Pakistani Taliban, led by an individual by the name of Hakimullah Mehsud. And he and a number of militants who are loyal to him, of course, are holed up in that northern part of South Waziristan.

What effect that we will be seeing now is with the Pakistani military coming in, other elements of the Mehsud tribe who may have no particular grief with Hakimullah are going to coalesce around him and try to resist the outsiders.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, to help us understand, General Masood, is the goal here to push them out permanent -- and -- and to stay there, to hold the area, or is it just to get them out, and then stay back and see what happens?

LT. GEN. TALAT MASOOD: No, absolutely not.

Actually, the whole aim is to reoccupy the territory, and to have now assert the government's write over that area. So, what they're trying to do, as very rightly pointed out, that they're trying to single out that major tribe which is resisting Pakistan, and also to see to it that it is isolated, because we do not want that all the tribes should join hands together and collectively put resistance towards Pakistan.

So, it's a very intelligent move, in the sense that they have tried to, you know, isolate them. But whether we will succeed in that is a very big question.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How long is this going to take? And the question one keeps hearing, Robert Grenier, is, is the Pakistan military -- Pakistani military up to the -- to the task?

ROBERT GRENIER: Well, this may take some weeks. And that has been the estimate that has come from the Pakistan military. And I think it's probably accurate. This is not going to be a quick operation.

But, when we ask whether the Pakistani military is up to it, yes, I think that they can win a tactical victory. I think that they can occupy the territory initially.

But what I think is required here is, if we're to solve this problem, is a classic kind of insurgency campaign, where they not only go in and take the territory, but they hold and then build afterwards. That would be unprecedented.

Building infrastructure as strategy

Lt. Gen. Talat Masood
Retired Pakistani Army
The real battle is with the civilian population.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And that's what you're saying they are trying to do.

LT. GEN. TALAT MASOOD: Absolutely, because military is only a part of the operation. We will also then use other elements of national power.

They will try to establish a civil administration there eventually. And the military will continue to hold ground until such time that that civilian infrastructure has been put in place. So, it's going to be a long-drawn process. And, then, furthermore the winter is setting in. And it becomes much more difficult.

So, what they will try to do is to have a successful operation before the end of December, and then and show that, meanwhile, you know, the civilian administration also starts moving, and then draw the people towards their side, so that the -- you know, they isolate then the real leaders who have been opposing the government and have been fighting it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But that is a much more complicated task than simply getting in there in the first place and pushing...

ROBERT GRENIER: It's a much more -- it's a much more complicated task. And it's going to require some real sustainment of effort.

You know, we should remember that, even in recent history, the Pakistan army's moving into that area is not unprecedented. They had to go into the southern part of South Waziristan in 2004 and again in 2005.

Later, in 2005, I actually visited in South Waziristan and received a briefing by the political agent there, the senior government representative there. And what he described, the plan that was under way at the time, was precisely what General Talat has described just now.

They have not sustained that in the past. We hope that they will in the future.

JUDY WOODRUFF: General Masood, we were talking about the civilian population. Something like 100,000 people are fleeing this area. What -- what is the military's track record with regard to civilians? How are they -- how are they interacting with the civilian population?

LT. GEN. TALAT MASOOD: Well, they're trying to be at their best with them, because, you see, the real battle is with the civilian population.

If they antagonize them, then there's no way that we could win. So, what they are trying to do is -- in fact, they are being internally displaced for their own safety, in fact, because what has happened is that you -- when you have to reoccupy the territory, then you have to fight a conventional war.

And, in a conventional war, there would be a lot of casualties, if the civilians were to say. So, what they're -- they're in fact encouraging people to leave. And, as the population is not very heavy, it's a thinly populated area, they are then making sure that those people who move, they are taken care of.

And the military itself plays a very major role in that. But, apart from that, the civilian administration and the United Nations, you know, agencies also come in to help the refugees.

Civilians fleeing the area

Robert Greiner
Former CIA Official
Significant numbers of civilians have already fled the area.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is there any evidence yet, Robert Grenier, whether that is working or not, as they would like for it to work?

ROBERT GRENIER: Well, I think it -- it's too soon to tell. We certainly do see significant numbers...

JUDY WOODRUFF: We're only in the third day of this operation.

ROBERT GRENIER: That's right. And -- and significant numbers of civilians have already fled the area. So, in that sense, I think that the general is right, that we hope that that will tend to suppress the number of civilian casualties that we might otherwise expect to see.

LT. GEN. TALAT MASOOD: Yes.

I may add here that, you know, very recently, there was another major operation, though not in the tribal belt, really adjacent to that, in Swat and the Malakand division, in which a much larger number of population moved out and were displaced.

And Pakistan did a remarkable job that, in a matter of about two months, they really, firstly, fed you know, them, clothed them, put them in tents, and then took them back into Swat. So, I think they have sufficient experience of that.

They also have an experience with a very major earthquake which took place in 2005. So, I think, all these things combined, Pakistan is fully cognizant of the major challenge that it faces because of the internal displacement of people.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What's at stake in this operation for the Pakistani government? What does it mean if -- if they succeed and if they don't succeed?

Defining success

Lt. Gen. Talat Masood
Retired Pakistani Army
I would say that the measure of success would depend as to whether there is really tranquility and peace which have returned to the place and something what it was, you know, years before 9/11.

ROBERT GRENIER: Well, if -- again you can define success in -- in different ways. And I think it's going to be very important, as we said before, for them to follow up a tactical victory with a much more long-lasting strategic victory.

If they fail to do that, if we instead fall into the same pattern that we have seen in the past, I think they're just going to encourage militancy, not only in the tribal areas, but also elsewhere in Pakistan.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Do you see it the same way...

LT. GEN. TALAT MASOOD: Absolutely.

JUDY WOODRUFF: ... in terms of what's at stake?

LT. GEN. TALAT MASOOD: I think it's extremely crucial that we win. And it's not just a question of winning militarily, but in the strategic sense. That means, you know, we really, genuinely win the hearts and minds of the people and make sure that the Taliban don't come back.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, if someone asks you to measure, how -- how will they measure success, what would you say?

LT. GEN. TALAT MASOOD: Well, I would say that the measure of success would depend as to whether there is really tranquility and peace which have returned to the place and something what it was, you know, years before 9/11, or even before the Afghan jihad, because, you know, that area has been so disturbed, due to the cumulative effect of several international factors, as well.

And it will also depend very much on how the situation in Afghanistan remains.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Lieutenant General Talat Masood, Robert Grenier, thank you, both.

LT. GEN. TALAT MASOOD: Most welcome.

JIM LEHRER: Teachers can find a lesson plan on the geography and history of Pakistan on our education page at NewsHour.PBS.org.