The letter was simple and direct. "To the brave and honorable people of the Mehsud tribe," it started, in both Urdu and Pashtu, the two languages of Pakistan's troubled tribal areas along the border with Afghanistan. "The operation [by the Pakistan army] is not meant to target the valiant and patriotic Mehsud tribes but [is] aimed at ridding them of the elements who have destroyed peace in the region." Dropped from helicopters above the mountain scrubland of South Waziristan the day before 28,000 Pakistani troops went in to wrest control of a militant stronghold, the letter was signed by General Ashfaq Kayani, chief of the Pakistani military. To drive home the point that Pakistan's most powerful man was speaking directly to a people largely ignored by the country's laws and politics, his photograph, flanked by the Pakistani flag and the crossed-swords insignia of the military, was splashed across the top of the note.
The unprecedented letter, along with an army operation in a part of the country that has seen little of the central government since Pakistan's birth in 1947, signals an extraordinary about-face for the nation's military establishment. For decades, Pakistan's armed forces have been obsessed with India, its foe in four wars, rather than the enemy within. But is the change of heart enough to stop Pakistan's endless death spiral toward becoming a nuclear-armed failed state?
No general wants to take war to his own people. Kayani was forced to do so by a surge of violence radiating from the South Waziristan headquarters of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), a group of several militant organizations seething with grievances against the state and influenced in part by al-Qaeda. The 10,000-strong TTP, which was led by Baitullah Mehsud until he was killed by a U.S. drone in August, is largely made up of members of his Mehsud tribe, though an increasing number of militants from the Pakistani heartland of Punjab, along with an estimated 1,500 Uzbek and Arab fighters, have joined the force. Since Mehsud's deputy, Hakimullah Mehsud, assumed leadership in August, there has been an escalation of violence throughout the country that has seen dozens of suicide-bomb attacks, lethal raids on security installations including the army headquarters and more than 200 deaths.
The attacks, which have targeted an Islamic university, shopping centers and police academies, have done the seemingly impossible: turned Pakistani public opinion against militants who had formerly been considered holy warriors fighting international forces in Afghanistan. That has allowed the army to go in with popular support. "This operation is not against an area or a tribe," says military spokesman Major General Athar Abbas. "The objective is to regain the space lost last year when Baitullah Mehsud declared war on the state of Pakistan."
An Ideal Place for Jihad
Truthfully, Pakistan never had that space to begin with. South Waziristan is part of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), which are governed by political officers rather than elected officials. The people of FATA have few constitutionally protected rights and privileges. Central government's presence is minimal; so is development. It is the ideal place for a militant group seeking to set up an Islamic caliphate from which to launch a global jihad.
Three times, the army has gone into South Waziristan, only to be forced into ignoble retreat. But Kayani, 57, seems determined to win this time. He is leading his army into a war that is both guerrilla in nature the militants know the terrain and have local support and conventional in its goals. "For the military, the goal is limited: to degrade and destroy these elements and not let them use South Waziristan as a sanctuary from which to spread terrorism in the rest of Pakistan," says Rifaat Hussain, of Islamabad's Quaid-i-Azam University. "But for the TTP, it is a battle for survival. If they lose, the whole movement is finished."