Omar Waraich: Military dares to take on an old foe in the wild north-west

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The Independent Online

It was known to British troops during the Raj as "Hell's door knocker". For more than a century, the harsh, mountainous terrain of Waziristan has bedevilled armies seeking to tame its fierce warriors.

"In the summer ... a nearby village rejoiced in the highest temperature in the world: 131F in the shade," Francis Stockdale, an ex-British Army captain, recalled in a memoir. "It was also an area where hostile tribesman waited, watched and pounced."

The autumn weather is more forgiving but the Mehsud tribe's hostility remains undimmed. From their patch of South Waziristan, near the Afghan border, they have dispatched hundreds of suicide bombers, played host to al-Qa'ida, and trained fighters who spread the Taliban's brutality deeper inside north-west Pakistan.

Despite punishing bombing raids that razed entire villages, earlier offensives foundered. Each time, humiliating peace deals allowed the militants the space to regroup, tighten their grip and resume their campaign of violence. Now there are an estimated 10,000 hardened guerrillas based there, including well-trained central Asians and Punjab's most vicious sectarian fighters. But this time, Pakistan's military officials insist, will prove different. "If the centre of gravity is taken out, positive effects will radiate across the tribal areas," said one. "It will send a message to the other militants: watch out."

Buoyed by its recent sweep of the Swat valley, army morale is high and, for the first time, its aims are popular with most of the public. Troops will also be spared the deviously clever methods of Baitullah Mehsud, the Taliban commander who was slain in a US drone strike two months ago. Hakimullah Mehsud, the new leader, is considered much weaker. Analysts believe that under his hotheaded and inexperienced command, the Pakistani Taliban alliance is likely to fracture. The ground has also been softened up in the past two months as key supply lines were choked off and air force jets pounded targets.

There is also the promise of no resistance from the rival Waziri tribe. Taking a leaf out of the British playbook, the army has revived its "divide and rule" style of non-aggression pacts with Mullah Nazir and Hafiz Gul Bahadur, two powerful militant leaders in Waziristan. But it remains to be seen whether and how the Pakistani army, trained to fight a different kind of war on a different border, has improved its counter-insurgency capability. Though US officials claim otherwise, the army says it lacks an adequate stock of helicopters, armoured vehicles and precision weapons.

Nor does the army have the luxury of fighting on a single front: the battle continues in pockets of Swat and elsewhere.