ISLAMABAD: With the country’s economy on a downslide, the military is struggling to keep up the momentum of its campaign against the Taliban and their al Qaeda cohorts in the tribal badlands, security officials said.
Resource constraints have grounded almost all operations against the home-grown Taliban to a near halt notwithstanding sporadic actions in some volatile areas, the offi cials told The Express Tribune. They spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
Aerial attacks, which helped the military take out several high-value targets in the tribal regions, have particularly been affected by the shortage of funds. “Air power has always been a real difference between us and them. Without aerial cover, ground troops often face stiff resistance,“ said a fighter pilot from the Army Aviation, who took part in the 2009 Swat operation.
Helicopter gunships have been the most effective weapon the Army Aviation used in operations against militants in Swat and lately in South Waziristan and Orakzai tribal regions.
“But flying gunships on a daily basis is a very expensive affair,“ said the pilot, who once pounded the hideouts of the Taliban led by fugitive cleric Mullah Fazlullah, also known as Mullah Radio, in the high mountains of Swat Valley.
Of late, ground troops also relied on air power to make inroads into the deep valleys surrounded by mountainous terrain in the militant-infested South Waziristan and Orakzai.
But for quite some time now, the aerial operations have been halted, primarily because of their exorbitant cost, which runs into billions of rupees, said officials at the General Headquarters (GHQ) in Rawalpindi.
Another official also confirmed the development but cited a different reason. “Yes, it is true helicopter gunship attacks are rare now. But it is due to the fact that militants are now scattered in different areas,“ he said. “Whenever the militants regroup we use helicopter gunships like we did on Tuesday in Mohmand,“ he added.
The military’s presumed `foot dragging’ is coincidental with efforts by top leaders from the country’s largest political parties to evolve a mechanism to pull the country’s ailing economy out of troubled waters.
Last week, a government economic team engaged the main opposition party in talks in an effort to seek its support for the economy that has since 2008 been breathing on an $11.3 billion bailout package by the International Monetary Fund.
The economic crunch is hitting the military alike.
Recently, the army decided to allow two weekly holidays in its units to cope with the situation.
“Fighting a war is a costly affair,” said Lt-Gen (retd) Abdul Qayyum. “With the government facing serious economic challenges, it is obvious the military cannot sustain its activities in the tribal areas in this situation,” said Gen Qayyum, who is a former chairman of the Pakistan Ordnance Factories.
“I don’t think the military can launch any new full-scale operation in the tribal areas,“ he said. “According to my estimate, the ongoing operations in the tribal areas cost Pakistan roughly $250,000 per soldier annually as compared to $1 million being spent by the Americans in Afghanistan,“ he said.