Dispatches from an Embedded Journalist in Waziristan

Gas Station in South Waziristan (Credit: dawn.com)
Gas Station in South Waziristan
(Credit: dawn.com)
THE LAST CHECKPOINT: Ostensibly, Angoor Adda is the last outpost in South Waziristan (which is better patrolled compared to North Waziristan because of the presence of two infantry divisions, the 40th and the 9th. A part of the evolving COIN/CT tactics is ensuring that military patrol vehicles have no obvious army markings, sometimes even non-army colours: Just the Pakistan flag and what the army calls the ‘national slogan’: “God is great”, as is seen on this converted pickup truck used by a Frontier Corps Wing.

Day 3: 1440

South Waziristan,
at 327 Brigade HQ,
40th Infantry Division


The mood here is pensive. I was here in the spring, when most of the IDPs had returned, and the brigade commander and his staff were boisterous about their recent achievements. From sanitisation operations, which are small-scale “mop up” engagements, to tracking sub-tribal politics, they seemed sure of themselves. Now, most of the junior officers (the adjutant, the brigade major) are the same, but the new brigadier is still settling in. Almost everybody is off-colour. They’ve just been recently hit, hard.

The new brigadier got a bit of a welcome party in just his first week, officers recall. They had picked up signal chatter a month ago, but they hadn’t been able to process it because the intel was too disconnected. All they knew was that the insurgents had gotten hold of some uniforms. That’s it.

Meanwhile, the army’s new “digital camo” uniforms had still not arrived for all the units stationed in this sector held by the 327 for a couple of years now. Some of the officers who had been to Pindi for down time or briefings were sporting the new gear. Most of the rest of the troops were not. That proved to be a critical logistical lapse. When they came in, around a week into the new brigadier’s stint, the six insurgents were all wearing the old uniforms. So they blended in, because so many units move up and down the new road. That allowed them to take the initiative: all you need in an engagement here.

The firefight lasted a couple of hours. Three of the insurgents were gunmen, the other three “suiciders”. Before he blew himself up, one of them even managed to get just inside the ring of fire, the Brigade Headquarters’ officers’ complex itself, ironically built around the residence of Khan Gul, a militant commander who was killed in a drone strike in 2012. The 327 took losses: one soldier was killed, two injured. They hadn’t seen them coming. That’s why the officers were pensive, even angry at themselves.

Later, visiting the public square cum market the 40th Division has built (which features a tailor, a butcher, a tea stall, a hardware depot, a blacksmith, even a barber-shop, which is a tough sell around these parts), the edginess didn’t disappear as interactions with the locals began.

“We haven’t had an attack here in months. More than a year, even,” said a captain. “An attack of such scale doesn’t mean they’re coming back. But it means they’re around. And it also means there was some sort of local support. After all we’ve been through together, the locals and us, that’s unacceptable.”

THREAT ALERT, YELLOW: A watchtower at the headquarters of the 9th Division in Wana, South Waziristan, with a newly installed alert-o-meter. Most of the attacks in South Waziristan are now limited to IEDs and not direct assaults on army installations, though a recent ‘complex attack’ on a brigade headquarters in Sararogha lasted for hours.

A Punjabi officer shouted out greetings in recently learnt Pashto, which were reciprocated. But the locals, though friendly enough, sensed the anxiety and some gave it right back. A local Malik praised the road the 40th had built. A young retailer, who had lost two of his elder brothers as they fought for the FC, showed off his wares from a shop that he had been granted for free; but there was tension. Even the local kids were apprehensive, compared to spring.

Before Rah-i-Nijat, Sararogha was the “tactical headquarters” of Baitullah Mehsud. When he conquered a Frontier Corps fort here, Mehsud razed it to the ground and distributed the bricks for people to reinforce their homes with. He was so angry with the stiff resistance the FC had put up that he forbade any of the bricks be used for a mosque. This place was the TTP’s seat of power till three divisions secured South Waziristan. Today, Sararogha has a girls’ school, though it’s not very well attended.

The Army is proud of its rehab and development work here, especially the road that runs from north to south through the town, connecting it to Jandola, and further on, to the settled area of D.I. Khan via Tank. But the army versus local divide persists, heavily dependent on how individual officers breach it. The former 327 brigade commander had actually learnt the local variant of Pashto, and was married to the place as he volunteered for a second tour here. Other officers choose to be more distant. It’s a personal choice.

SEATING ARRANGEMENTS: Medicine distribution camps, like this one just outside Sararogha, South Waziristan, run by an engineer, are an attempt by the army to regain the trust of the locals. Seats are a new induction by the organizers; camps without seats are usually subjected to chaos, as ‘queuing up’ is considered derogatory in the local ‘riwaj’, or culture.

Operationally, the weakness of gathering and then processing tactical intelligence remains, and the recent attack proved it. Though chatter gets picked up by signals officers embedded with infantry units, with local Pashto specialists aiding them, there is no one, uniform method by which intel is processed. A few officers showed me the 327’s procedure: an Excel spreadsheet, complete with smart functions, that the brigade has developed to match and tally chatter with insurgent operations; but its retrospective, they admit, not allowing them to always pre-empt a militant strike before it happens.

There’s also a capacity problem; at the brigade level and lower; crucial chatter transcriptions will not travel all the way up on busy days. They tell me about the Russians, who had a KGB officer embedded with every unit, back in the day. The Americans too have intel specialists built into smaller, forward formations, across the border. No such thing in Pakistan’s units: the old spy/soldier divide remains, and the spies only talk to the brass, at Division HQ. The directives for singular platforms, where sharing and processing of vital pre-operational data is built around ‘netcentricity’ will have to come from the Military Operations directorate, they surmise.

“They’re working on it,” says a major, accepting a warm Mountain Dew from a local bakery owner. “The MO is always working on something.”

Day 4: 2030

South Waziristan,
Officer’s Mess of (unnamed) Baloch Regiment,
327 Brigade, 40th Division

“The Hunting Party”

“It’s VUCA,” said the commanding officer (CO), whose unit patrols the eastern shoulder of what the Army calls the ‘Mehsud Triangle’ – the gaping area once dominated by Mehsud tribesmen that is now flanked on the east by the 40th Division and held on the west by the 9th Division. “It’s totally VUCA, this place.”

“Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous,” he wisps into the smoke filled room, with Hamid Mir pontificating on the flat screen. “Volatile because the nature, speed, volume, magnitude and dynamics of events change all the time. Uncertain because of the lack of predictability of events and issues. Complex because of the interconnectivity of various and different parts that confound those issues. And ambiguous, because reality is hazy, mixed confusingly with the meaning of conditions.”

STILL NEEDS BODY ARMOUR: Years after the peace deal that was inked here, this trooper in Shakai’s 124 Brigade still need armour to move around his “AOR”, or area of responsibility, as volatility and violence persist. The heavy footprint chafes locals, but the army fights tensions with free medical camps and roving clinics.

We’re having, believe it or not, perfectly crusted chicken pot pie. Complete with cheese, mushrooms, potatoes and Dunhills. “I picked up the recipe at (names the Western military academy he’s recently trained at). The chef here took some time to adapt to it. We don’t have much to do here except fight and eat. So we do both…we have a lot of time to improve both those skills.”

Under a picture of the Chief of Army Staff and the colonel commandant of his regiment, there is a framed still from the field. I count 18 in all, officers and soldiers, wearing their tac-gear, bandoliers and a Waziristani sunburn, looking like they all need sleep and showers. The name and date of the operation, which happened this summer, and a commendation from the 327 Brigade, is etched under the picture.

“That was fun…A hunting party,” says the CO. “We had been picking up chatter for days and we knew, roughly, of a location that these guys were hiding out in. We had estimated around 20 to 30 of them to be there. So I put together a contingent, got permissions, and took off. We were tired of sitting around.”

“We pre-streamed two fully charged iPads with the estimated Google Maps location our intel had indicated these guys were at. We drove for half a day, till the track finished. We kept going, on foot, on light rations, and dropped our heavy weapons. We walked for two days and nights. We slept on the rocks, and hid in caves. We moved at night. We had borrowed these new lights [gear specifics cannot be named] from the SSG [Special Service Group, the army’s special operations formation], which helped us along.”

COBRA COMMANDER: An AH-1 Cobra gunship gets ready for take-off at the 9th Division’s aviation base, in Wana, South Waziristan. The army first deployed the AH-1 in the 1980s in an anti-armour role against India, especially around the South Punjab axis. But most of the army’s Cobra squadrons now rotate in and out of FATA for what are, strictly, anti-terror operations. Fitted with night-vision devices, Cobras provide air cover for ground troops, perform aerial ‘show of force’ patrols and reconnaissance, and conduct independent ambushes, pursuits and raids as well. They’ve helped the army reduce IED casualties, which mounted or on foot troops are subjected to on the ground, but they’re expensive to maintain.

“When we made contact, on the third afternoon, we had just 12 percent of batteries left on our second iPad. I remember that. Most of our cigarettes were also gone, which is always a bad sign. We were getting tired. We had Steyrs [Austrian-made sniper rifles], a couple of Dragunovs [Russian-made sniper rifles], RPGs [rocket propelled grenades], and our regular kit with SMGs {Type 56s, Chinese variants of the AK-47].”

“Our intel had been good on location, but bad about the numbers. There were more than 20 of them. Much, much more than 20. We engaged through our snipers from the high ground, then took out a couple of their compounds with the RPGs. They swarmed out, and kept coming, from a hidden enclave in the rear that we hadn’t seen. We kept engaging.

THE COMM MAP: In the COIN/CT theatre of South Waziristan, communications ‘on the fly’ mean being able to talk with dozens of check-posts and positions that are spread out over several kilometres. Here’s a ‘radio map’ mounted on an officer’s car in one of the three brigades that form the 40th Division. The map is changed often, and randomly, to stop the militants from ‘counter-intercepting’ military chatter.

“They had solar panels. They had sat phones. They had mortars. The hot part of the engagement lasted around 45 minutes.

“We eventually called in aviation. We had to, as I didn’t want to carry a single shaheed back. But Google Maps, Zindabad.

“I don’t have drones and satellites, but I have what the Americans don’t: ownership. That’s why we’re innovative. We could have just sat there and done nothing, or we could have engaged. So we engaged and had a hunting party. More pie?”

Day 7: 1400

Angoor Adda,
South Waziristan/Afghanistan border,
Wing Headquarters of (Unnamed) Wing of Frontier Corps,
9th Infantry Division


This place looks like the end of the world. Ridgelines that look like blunted razors, dust that stings and sun that cuts. For many, the world does end here, as Afghanistan begins. But the locals keep on living and moving. Mostly Wazirs, they come and go across the border: on foot, on motorcycles, in pick-up trucks, sedans and lorries. The border crossing is manned by one of the older FC wings. The commandant is a Punjabi, but all the men are Pakhtun. It’s a normal day, as the FC is doing its regular border patrolling. Truck drivers are allowed to brandish weapons to protect themselves. This is Wazir land, after all.

THE LAST GAS STATION ON EARTH: Less than a mile from the Durand Line, this sole petrol pump in Angoor Adda, South Waziristan, has been both a crucial lifeline for the local transport as well as the sight of several gunfights. Disagreement over priority access between armed groups, especially when supplies are low, has often resulted in violence. The station pumps all sorts of fuel: legal petrol from Pakistan, and the not-so-legal supply that comes from across the border, even Iran.

They’re more laid back than the Mehsuds, these Ahmadzai Wazirs, who dominate here with five sub-tribes, rivalled by the Sulaiman Khel, who have two sub-tribes. Four Taliban groups – Shamsullah, Halimullah, Malang and the feared Commander Nazir Group – operate here, abetted and/or rivaled by at least five “independent” Taliban field commanders: Khalid (Zali Khel), Sultan (Toji Khel), Tariq (Punjabi), Gade Khan (Toji Khel), Waliullah (Gangi Khel) and Saifullah (Toji Khel). The tribal-militant matrix is confusing, and I have to go through an organogram that the commandant makes in the dirt with his cane to understand the rules. What’s obvious enough, however, is the strongest political and physical structures in town are, ironically enough, the consortium of mosques that are led by four Maulanas of varying hues. The state doesn’t matter here, nor exist; except for the FC, whose commander gets by on good will, using his 395 Corpsmen and 26 regular army troops to build schools, repair shops, attend the jirgas and, of course, play bad cop.

A construction crew is working a new petrol pump, as the old one has seen too many firefights break out for possession and first dibs when the supply is low. As this is a transit point of a border town, I see more women – covered up of course – than I have seen so far. There are no slits in the burqas, like the ones you see in the mainland; just pierced pocks. Nor are they black, also a mainland trend, neither red, as seen in Kabul. This is white and blue burqa land. Only pre-pubescent girls are un-burqa’d, but even a four-year-old has a dupatta.

NOT THE DEVIL’S WORKSHOP: Car mechanics at work in Angoor Adda’s central bazaar. With the absence of gas stations, workshops like this also provide petrol and diesel fills, and according to an intelligence official, excellent insight about whose using the local roads, what they’re driving, and where they’re headed.

Kids in uniforms from a local school are crossing over to go back to their homes on the Afghan side. So is a chicken vendor with a low-flung Hilux filled with birds and assistants. The Durand Line is less than well imagined for these divided tribes: For them, it’s sub-fictional. Here, they’re married to their land, not their countries. My roaming indicator shows that only an Afghan cellular service provider is available. This is the Pakistani part of Tribalistan, really. The market itself is subsistence-level; everybody is driving some beat up version of a Toyota. “Woodtrade, coal, livestock, agriculture” are the professions that my intel briefing claims the locals are involved in, but I spot a few mechanics and some madressah students; most men are just ambling around.

SCHOOL OF WAR: Students, like this young one from Chagmalai Model School for Boys near Jandola, South Waziristan, have been deprived as well as enabled by the Waziristan war machine. Without the military’s presence in the region, they wouldn’t have a school to go to, as the army funds and sends volunteers and cadets to teach at such institutions. But army presence is also accompanied by military operations as well as the restrictions and dangers for the local population.

Troops from the Afghan National Army (ANA) are stationed around 30 metres away from the official border crossing, which is better paved on the Pakistani side thanks to a new road the Corps of Engineers have laid with American and UAE funding. A couple of the ANA are wearing baseball caps, one red and one yellow, and the guy with the red cap has it on backwards, like a street gang member from an American inner city. But their watchtowers are brand-new, as are their barracks and searchlights. “A gift from Nato,” mutters the commandant of the FC Wing. “Let’s see if they behave like they deserve it.”

There have been cross-border tensions here. “We took fire on March 23, heavy fire,” says the commandant, an infantryman with a big voice that is flattened by his Gold Leafs. “Then on August 14, too. Then, on the 15th, they had fireworks. Actual, colourful, fireworks.”

FC UNDER ATTACK: A sentry of the 2nd Wing of the Frontier Corps, on watch on one of the outer perimeter walls, partially damaged in a recent attack, in Angoor Adda, South Waziristan. Angoor Adda has been the site of a US ‘boots on the ground’ incursion, and is a major Af-Pak border crossing as well. After high casualties and mass surrenders in the 2000s, the FC has been forced to evolve, in tactics and even in uniform, moving from a border-security force role to that of an anti-terror force.

I can read the sub-text of the complaint: The ANA has ‘Indian backing’, allege most of the operational and intelligence officers I’ve often met on this side. But the fireworks anecdote, on India’s Independence Day, is a new one.

“Communication is the best medicine,” claims the commandant. The ill-constructed proverb has substance, though.

“Every Wednesday, at 2100 hours, I speak to my counterpart across the border. I’ve got my interpreter, who speaks Pashto. That CO there has got his Pakhtun aide, as he is a Dari speaker himself.

“We started this hotline around a couple of months ago, soon after the Americans left. When we heard that the Indians left along with the Yanks, we reached out. And it worked. Directly talking to the Afghans has helped.

“Firing is down. As are mortar engagements. They’ve shot at us to pressurise us to stop cross-border movement, which is not always controllable because of this so-called border and the demands of the tribes; but hitting us only makes matters worse because we’re forced to hit back.

“We’ve started sharing intel now. There’s still distrust, but both of us have created a window.”

My ride, an MI-17, has a crew that doesn’t appreciate sunsets, nor bunking overnight in a dusty border town’s FC Wing that’s seen two American incursions, boots on the ground and all that. Aviators are pushy, and prefer asphalt under their tires when it’s lights out. I’m summoned, and move to the helipad. Next stop, the 7th Division’s HQ.

WAITING UNDERGROUND: The below-surface “TacHQ”, or tactical headquarters of the 7th Division, the oldest formation in the army, in Miranshah, North Waziristan. Underground because it has been subjected to rocket and mortar attacks, the 7th Division will be the frontline outfit that will do the heavy-lifting if/when the time for the “mop up” operation in North Waziristan arrives.

Between the static induced by Talib jammers below us, I have an in-flight comm-set debate with the pilots about the bandwidth of the free wi-fi that awaits us, code for the longevity of the Viber chat we are looking forward to with our wives when we bunk up at the Golden Arrow Hotel (as Miranshah’s officers’ quarters are referred to, a cheeky reference to the formation sign of the 7th Division as well as the mosquitoes that plague it).

The wi-fi is not a luxury. We will need to talk to our wives: Midnight artillery fire makes for gentlemanly insomniacs. And North Waziristan is a lonely place, anyway. Even with 20,000 hardened militants willing to offer their company.

The writer is a producer/correspondent for NBC News. He tweets at @WajSKhan

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