In military parlance North Waziristan is a “target-rich environment.” For the past six months it has been the focus of an escalating campaign of U.S. drone attacks – designed to take out the leadership of militant groups (and increasingly their foot-soldiers) in an area where the Pakistani armed forces are reluctant to go on the offensive.
After Pakistani operations in other areas – South Waziristan, the Orakzai area and Swat Valley - it seems that many militant groups have converged on mountainous North Waziristan, which borders Afghanistan. Most have a presence in and around the town of Miran Shah, where the Pakistani security forces have little freedom of movement. The bodies of “informers” and “spies” are frequently found in ditches around the town, sometimes beheaded.
The Taliban recently threatened Pakistani Army with dire consequences should it emerge from its fortified sanctuaries in the area. Last year, several military convoys were ambushed; the area’s topography of ravines and crags is perfect territory for such attacks. So the job of disrupting and destroying the terrorist networks in North Waziristan falls to drones hovering thousands of feet above.
The latest attack, in the early hours of Tuesday morning Pakistan time, was aimed at a compound in the district of Lowara Mandi, some 50 kilometres from Miran Shah and close to the border with the restive Afghan province of Khost.
According to local Pakistani officials, one possible target was infrastructure and militants in the area associated with the leader of the Pakistani Taliban in North Waziristan, a renowned commander and shrewd tactician called Hafiz Gul Bahadur. Bahadur is in his late 40s and has spent most of his life fighting. When scarcely out of his teens, Bahadur was involved in the jihad against Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. And many generations ago his family were involved in fighting the British Empire. He leads an important tribe in the border area and by dubbing himself ‘Hafiz’ signifies that he has learned the Koran by heart.
Bahadur has been close to al Qaeda and another terror group known as the Haqqani Network – though never so close as to lose his autonomy. Most of his focus (and that of the Haqqanis) has been on battling US troops in Afghanistan, rather than the Pakistani army (which is one reason why the Pakistanis have not targeted them but have gone after other factions of the Pakistani Taliban.) In September 2006, he was involved in a short-lived peace deal with the government of General Musharraf, an agreement that infuriated the United States.
Mansur Khan Mahsud, research co-ordinator of the FATA Research Center in Islamabad, studies the militant landscape in the Federally Administerd Tribal Territories. In a recent profile, he wrote: “Bahadur is a strategic pragmatist, maintaining close relations with a host of militants in North Waziristan while avoiding confrontation with the Pakistani state that might initiate a powerful crackdown.”
Many of Bahadur’s commanders are based in and around Miran Shah – one reason for the rain of drone attacks in the area. Bahadur himself has survived rivalries, intrigue and combat for the best part of two decades. The United States would like nothing more than to put him out of business. But Hafiz Gul Bahadur is not called the Survivor of North Waziristan without good reason.