The battlefield conditions are familiar. A group of al-Qaida fighters is under siege in fortified hideouts. Intercepted radio conversations reveal foreign tongues. A top terrorist leader is reportedly trapped and allied militias have supposedly cut off all escape routes. U.S. forces are providing technical assistance.
The al-Qaida standoff in Pakistan’s South Waziristan region bears deep similarities with the December 2001 battle of Tora Bora, and could yield similarly disappointing results. On Monday Pakistani forces discovered a mile-long tunnel, evidence that suspected al-Qaida leaders had again planned ahead, and possibly escaped.
In the Tora Bora mountains of Afghanistan, the “high-value target” was Osama bin Laden. U.S. officials at the time suspected that his Egyptian deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, was already dead. But al-Zawahri has since made several statements released on audiotape, the most recent in February.
The fact that top Pakistani officials think al-Zawahri now may be trapped in a mud fortress in South Waziristan shows how wrong intelligence estimations could be then, and perhaps now.
But the tactics used by the al-Qaida fighters in both places are remarkably similar and lend credence to President Gen. Pervez Musharraf’s speculation that only a top leader would warrant such a spirited defense.
Then, as now, the fighters appeared to be mostly Arabs, Chechens, Uzbeks and ethnic Uighurs from China’s predominantly Muslim Xinjiang province. The foreign fighters used hand-held radios to communicate, even though the signals can easily be intercepted and are a key source of intelligence.
At Tora Bora, the pro-American mujahedeen often used similar radios to argue with their enemy and to try to persuade them to surrender.
A dozen American intelligence agents are helping the Pakistanis in the Waziristan operation. At Tora Bora, dozens of U.S. and British special forces played the same role.
On Monday, Pakistani tribal elders entered the Waziristan battleground to discuss a peaceful surrender.
The Chechens and Uzbeks at Tora Bora would agree to cease-fires in order to continue negotiations with tribal elders, but they always began fighting again. In the end, they fought until they could no longer lift a weapon, either because they were badly wounded or dead.
“A cease-fire is no good,” said Mohammed Zaman, an Afghan militia leader who fought at Tora Bora, when asked Monday about the fighting in Pakistan. “The operation should continue to get results.”
Only after the Tora Bora battle was over, the wounded captured and the dead buried did al-Qaida’s strategy become clear. The defenders were a “rear guard,” holding out as long as possible to allow their leaders to escape in small groups.
The border with Pakistan, then supposedly sealed by Afghan militia and Pakistani troops, proved to be porous.
Afghan militia leaders later revealed to The Associated Press that they had been betrayed by two of their own, Din Mohammed and Yunnis Khalis. Bin Laden and other top leaders had escaped into Pakistan with their families and had disappeared into the tribal areas, where they had prearranged safe passage, according to Afghans familiar with the plan.
In the recent Waziristan fighting, Pakistani troops have discovered that al-Qaida again had an exit strategy.
“There is a possibility that the tunnel may have been used at the start of the operation,” Brig. Mahmood Shah told journalists. He said the tunnels began at homes and led in the direction of a mountain range that straddles the border.
Zaman, reached in Peshawar, said that’s exactly where he would expect them to go.
“Those people cannot stay in an open field. They are in the mountains,” he said. “Life for those people is easier and safer in the mountains.”
Lt. Gen. Safdar Hussain, the Pakistani commander leading the fight in Waziristan, said Saturday that his men have formed two cordons around the 20-square-mile area containing the al-Qaida fighters in Waziristan and they might still be caught.
But in reality, a cordon that big can easily be penetrated by a small, determined group moving at night. Escape would be made easier since the bulk of the Pakistani forces have been busy fighting a fanatical rear guard defending fortress-like family compounds.
Hussain, like the Afghans more than two years ago, must also contend with residents, whose knowledge of the area and loyalty to the foreigners make them a formidable force.
And since his forces will remain in the tribal areas for generations to come, the general must take into account local sensibilities and consider the long-term implications of his tactics.