Friday, 15 August 2008

Putting the Peices Together, Part 1: The Battle of Lowi Sam

One of the most frustrating things about the media in Pakistan is its seeming inability to piece together dribbles of information to present a larger picture of what is going on. At least, this often seems the case with the dailies [and the TV news for that matter]. Its an area where monthly magazines such as Herald really standout. [I'm still hoping that they start putting up their articles from back issues on line but so far, no luck.]

Recently everyone has been focused on the impending resignation/impeachment of Musharraf and questions over what will happen next. Personally I don't find the issue terribly interesting. Musharraf has been a dead duck in the water for a while now. Removing him is not going to make a major difference (unless, as rumored he takes the NRO with him, which would be interesting). Anyway, all sorts of interesting and shocking things have been going on in our country, particularly as regards the Taliban and, as usual, the media doesn't seem to be doing a terribly good job of putting it into context. So, I thought I might try to peice some things together in a series of posts over the next few days. Each post will correspond, more or less, to a geographical area. Here's the first:

The Battle of Lowi Sam

It seems to have slipped the notice of many people but the Pakistan armed forces have just fought one of their biggest battles since, oh well, since the ill-fated Wana Operation. Once again this seems to have been a poorly thought out and poorly executed move by the FC (Frontier Corps) that led to heavy casulties.

On August 6th, a force of about 150* FC men moved to occupy Lowi Sam in Bajur Agency, an area which they had evacuated about a year earlier under pressure of Taliban attacks. This initial move was reported in the press as a succesful operation. People were said to have welcomed the arrival of government forces because they were "fed up of the self-styled Shariah and harsh policies of the Taliban". However, there was intimation of trouble to come when, according to Dawn, "Thousands of tribesmen have left their homes in Ghazi Beg, Atokhel, Qandaharo and Khwayzai tehsils and are moving to other places fearing severe clashes in the region".

It turns out that those tribesmen knew something was up.

The Taliban responded to the FC move by heavy attacks that lasted throughout the next day. There were reports of heavy fighting and reinforcements were despatched. These convoys in turn were ambushed on the road and by the next day, 8th August, the military was using airstrikes and helicopter gunships to try and break the "seige" of the FC troops. The reports of casulties widely differed and one can probably safely say that neither the Taliban nor the official figures are entirely reliable, but one measure of how badly things were going can be gauged by the fact that the army spokesman was telling reporters to contact the FC and the FC spokesman was refusing to comment.

On August 9th it was reported that the FC contingent had managed to break out of their encirclement and retreat to the regional FC headquaretrs at Khar. Official sources said that there were 9 dead and 55 missing. The Taliban meanwhile were claiming over a hundred security personel dead and were declaring victory and distributing cash prizes.

Some of the worst loses seem to have occured where convoys were ambushed. Here is the description of one ambush by a witness to the NYT:

The insurgents then used rocket-propelled grenades and heavy machine-gun fire to attack a relief convoy of reinforcements sent from Khar, according to residents who arrived in the nearby town of Risalpur on Saturday.

The Taliban also laid roadside bombs, known as improvised explosive devices, along the road the convoy traveled, said Mohammed Khan, a timber merchant from the village of Sadiq Abad whose house was on the route.

“When the convoy stopped because of the I.E.D.’s on the road, then the Taliban were everywhere, in every place — they came and attacked the Frontier Corps,” Mr. Khan said in Risalpur. “After the convoy stopped, there was fighting for two days. The Taliban have the natural advantage because there is so much greenery.”

The maize crop in the fields, a month from harvest, was nearly six feet tall and provided perfect hideouts for the insurgents, he said.

And a description of the scene at Lowi Sam from Dawn:

Eyewitnesses said the situation was chaotic and the area was littered with bodies and burnt vehicles. They said the soldiers, who had been under siege for the past three days, had returned to their base in Khaar, leaving behind bodies, trucks and a large quantity of arms and ammunition.

The FC seem to have lost many vehicles, including tanks and a crane.

And it seems as if the Taliban actually chased the FC all the way back to Khaar and actually tried to beseige the FC Regional Headquarters there. The military responded with extremely heavy shelling and ariel bombardment which seems to caused a great deal of collateral damage, as chronicled here. But it did have the effect of breaking the seige of Khar by 11th August.

By now fighting had spread over a large area, the Taliban were using pirate FM radio stations to rally support and call for help from other areas, and the indescriminate use of artillery had sent over 100,000 people fleeing the fighting. An estimate put the death toll at 160 in 5 days of fighting. Millitants also reportedly beheaded two civilians for cooperating with government forces.

On August 12th, came the news that helicopter gunships had killed several militants including Al Qaeda operative Abu Saeed Al-Masri, a report which was denied by the Taliban and is still unconfirmed. Also, the leader of a Taliban group in North Waziristan, Ahmadullah Ahmedi threatened to start attacking gvoernment forces if they didn't stop their operations in Bajur and Swat (more on that in a later post). Its worth noting that things have been peaceful in Waziristan for months, presumably after the federal government and the Taliban there came to some kind of mutual understanding.

By the next day, there were reports of militants in Bajur stopping civilians from fleeing and attempting to "conscript" locals. Authorities accused them of using women and children as 'human sheilds'. Security forces also announced, by the way, that all wheat fields next to roads must be cleared to a distance of 200m from the road, a measure meant to make it harder for militants to launch the kinds of ambushes that caused such carnage on the road to Lowi Sam. As this article in the News describes, locals sheltered soldiers caught in the ambush.

So what is to be made of this sorry tale?

Firstly, its the FC that is taking the brunt of the fighting. The FC is of course under the control of the civillian Interior Ministry. The army, apart from providing air support seems to want to sit out of Counter-Insurgency operations. Certainly in terms of armament and training, the FC is the inferior force.

Interestingly enough, members of the provincial government have been appealing to the army to take action in FATA. Here is an excellent article by Afrasiab Khattak of the ANP to do just that. But so far the army seems to be keeping more of a hands-off policy here.

Syed Saleem Shahzad, whose articles I always take with a pinch of salt claims that informers within the armed forces had tipped off the Taliban about the FC operation, though this may just be rumour turned into 'news'. [Incidentally Mr Shahzad also seems to be the only reporter in Pakistan who keeps reporting about the death of Al-Qaeda No. 3s - Neither the News or Dawn used the term when they referred to the supposed death of Al-Masri.]

Also of note is that the local populace seems sick of the Taliban and would welcome the return of government rule, and, that the massive use of artillery and airstrikes is eroding that support. I fear I may sound like one of those horrible CNN cliche-spewing experts, but its clear that whats needed is more 'boots-on-the-ground' if the militants are going to be 'flushed out' of places like Lowi Sam.

* Sources differ on the number. Some say between 150 and 200. Another claims 200-300. My guess is that the original force had between 150 and 200 and as more troops were committed to the battle the total number involved approached 300.

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