My memory of the days post-9/11 is a panorama of bomb blasts, terror attacks and the helplessness of government to control this non-stop onslaught. While the whole nation was trying to do damage control, the armed forces and civil armed forces were tasked to combat and get rid of this menace. It was a war brought upon us by someone else and we had to pay its price so dearly. If only those who perpetrated it had at least the gratitude to acknowledge the sacrifices made by our nation, we would then have felt that it was worth the effort.
This is the kind of war that is difficult to control or combat as it threatened Pakistan's integrity and existence as hitherto never before. It is easy to fight a modern war on the battlefield, where the battle lines are clearly drawn and enemy is identified and known. To fight a war with no borders and that too within the cities, avoiding collateral damage is most difficult to plan and execute.
What began from the erstwhile FATA areas adjoining the border remained localized, however, it took unacceptable dimension when settled areas like Swat and even outskirts of Peshawar, North Waziristan and South Waziristan agencies were not spared from the wrath. Most wanted terrorists housed in jails were getting released by terrorists in broad daylight, Sri Lankan cricketers were attacked in Lahore in the most gruesome manner, challenging the very integrity and writ of the Government. The militants' attack at the Jinnah International Airport, Karachi on June 8, 2014 triggered a more effective and prompt action.
In Pakistan, the presence of militant groups in North Waziristan Agency (NWA) was seen as a major cause of the worst terrorist attacks in the preceding years. Militant wings had a stronghold in NWA and terrorist wings were actively using Pakistan's soil for their nefarious designs all over the country. It was later revealed that over the years the terrorists had complete logistics supply chains underground (tunneled through a labyrinth-like network) and even their complete command and control centers were fully operational. This was not an overnight job but years of preconceived and preplanned work.
The Pakistani leadership decided to take the battle into the strongholds of the terrorists and hit them hard there. That is how the Pakistan Armed Forces were ordered to go for an all out crackdown immediately and launch a full-scale military operation. This Operation was code-named, 'Zarb-e-Azb' . `Azb' refers to one of the seven swords of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) that he carried in the Ghazwas (Baffles) of Uhad and Bath to strike the infidels hard. 'Zarb-e-Azb' means 'swift and conclusive strike'. The operation was launched against the terrorists of all hues and colour, and the terrorists were dismantled during the operation without any discrimination. After two years of the successful Operation Zarb-e-Azb, Pakistan became a safer place.
The Tri-Services Operational Coordination
The operations started on June 15, 2014 with utmost determination to wipe out hotbeds of militantancy in NWA in the strategically important agency FATA, bordering Afghanistan. The defenders of Pakistan initiated the operation with unflinching faith and undaunted commitment to eradicate the scourge of terrorism while fighting without any discrimination of `good' and `bad' Taliban. It was an uphill task to fight in the most treacherous terrain and hostile environment infested with miscreants amongst local population and with the menace of landmines and IEDs but Pakistan Armed Forces stood to all tests and proved their invincibility with an unwavering resolve, as the motherland's peace and progress has always remained paramount for them.
The War took a more vigorous and synergized turn after the terrorist attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar on December 16, 2014 where the armed forces began with a new resolve to go all out for flushing out the last of the terrorists.
Considering the magnitude of the threat and its speedy elimination, the Army leadership took the PAF and Pakistan Navy leadership into confidence and what followed was the best-ever tri-services coordination ever achieved in the history of Pakistan. The trio of General Raheel Sharif, Air Chief Marshal Sohail Aman, and Admiral Zakaullah joined hands and held marathon sessions that spread through different operation rooms as well as in mid-air control rooms, oft controlling operations through live intelligence and conducting spontaneous operations.
The synergies that were observed were hitherto never seen before. Resultantly, one saw the Army Chief on the frontlines, the Air Chief leading the attacking formations, as did the Naval Chief, who provided the most critical live surveillance of the battle areas. This level of coordination and close cooperation had never been witnessed before. Their joint strategy orchestrated a tune that would make the militants dance, a reversal of the status that the militants enjoyed over a decade. The tri-services operations brought about tangible strategic effects, which brought the terrorists to their knees and got the nation back to its sovereign status, restoring sanity and governance. All this happened as a result of intimate and close cooperation of all arms and services. The tri-service cooperation of Pakistan had come of age. For the formulation of this discourse and with hands-on accuracy, I have taken professional help from Air Chief Marshal Sohail Aman, the former Chief of Air Staff, the Director Generals of Aviation Command, Special Services Group and respective arms and services. My gratitude and thanks to all of them for helping me.
Role of PAF
The air forces world over are trained for conventional as well as strategic roles. However, given the capabilities of fire power, precision (day/night) as well as the ability to operate in challenging areas at a short notice without interference from ground make air power a suitable choice for counter-terrorism (CT).
Pakistan Army and PAF have traditionally operated hand in glove during wars, relief operation and other national security situations. Hence the leadership of the Army and the PAF quickly went to the drawing board to form a strategy in CT domain. The basic concept was to "pave way for ground forces to curtail attrition", a task that the PAF willingly accepted, prepared for, conducted professionally and today stands proud to have been a key player in removing terrorism from the sacred motherland.
The Key Factors
While "paving way" was the main strategy, PAF had to work on the "how" part of it. The following major strands were taken into consideration:
• Identifying Centre of Gravity (CG)
Terrorist weapons, food storage facilities and command centers were identified as the CG and PAF went behind those wholeheartedly. The objective was to deny them logistic support. This needed utilization of own ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) assets round-the-clock, synch-in with information (especially real-time information) from Pakistan Army. This factor became pivotal in the subsequent success of Operation Zarb-e-Azb.
• Dynamic Targeting
PAF's other important strand was to directly support soldiers fighting terrorists. PAF jets operated astonishingly close to our own troops in order to reduce reaction time of the enemy (after PAF strike and own soldiers' outbreak). Good planning and precision along with correct intelligence led to no fraticide of own troops. Approach directions and friendly dispositions were especially taken into focus.
Conduct of Air Operations
Prior to Operation Zarb-e-Azb, PAF was involved in 12 salient CT operations in support of Army, most important being Swat, Dir and South Waziristan. The airstrikes preceded land operations. PAF readied the following assets:
• ISR. PAF C-13o fleet was equipped with appropriate day/night cameras and link-up arrangements were done to provide real-time picture to PAF/Army (GHQ/Corp HQs). This became pivotal in timely identifying and subsequently neutralizing the terrorist forces.
• F-i6s and Precision-Guided Munitions. F-16s along with PGMs became the main tool in engaging the terrorists force. The cover of night darkness to the enemy was completely denied and their movement's disposition and operations were tracked and then appropriate tactical actions were initiated. PAF did use other fighter jets including JF-17 with appropriate weaponry, engaging the enemy while it was dug in/hiding in mountains/thick jungles.
• Command & Control. Owing to demands of CT operations, a small but special/advances ops room was developed, linking all organs within PAF and essentials of the Pakistan Army. It must be put on record that the PAF Engineers played a pivotal role in flying out integrated network thus enabling operational flexibility.
Start of Zarb-e-Azb, i.e., opening up for North Waziristan was a necessity and a decision was made in June 2014. Pakistan Army had prepared well in terms of training and provision of logistics, safeguarding areas and intelligence operations. It is because of these factors that the terrorists were fairly isolated and easily targeted, especially through air. It is a record that besides no fratricide, there were no occasions where the innocent were targeted. This is the highlight of air as well as ground operations because CT operations in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the Middle East were all replete with targeting innocent lives in hospitals, wedding congregations and living areas. This factor alone remained pivotal in garnering the local tribal support. They knew that they would remain safe not only from air/ground operations but the left out terrorists would not be able to harass them later on.
Coordinated Land-Air Operation
Basic targeting was developed at Military Operations Directorate at GHQ with inputs from various agencies. AHQs operation room remained involved in the target planning process too and fighter pilots used their intelligence data bank to further refine the targets. This back and forth information sharing was again an important factor in the correct and timely engagement of targets. However, the most important coordination mechanism (unique from other coalition operation) was the real-time coordination. Each key element (GHQ Ops Room, Corps Ops Room, C-13o airborne ops team in ops area and our nerve center AHQs Ops Room) saw real-time engagement of targets. It never remained one-time engagement and an exit. Follow-on fighter jets, Cobra gunships and other surface-to-surface army weapons were kept ready. Situations were assessed and further operational course was mutually discussed between Deputy Chief of the Air Staff (DCAS) (Ops) and Director General Military Operations (DG MO) and correct operational strategy and weapons were employed. Many a times difficult targets owing to terrain and hideouts were targetted by follow on fighter jets with precision. Land operations were launched only when enough satisfaction was attained, seeing that the enemy had been neutralized to a desired degree. A lot of people may not be aware that the nation fought terrorists, who were well trained and falsely yet fully motivated against us. They carried specialist weaponry and knew how to attack, especially their expertise in IEDs caused significant problem to our land troops. They understood how to group, attack and disperse into numerous locations. Thanks to our real-time ISR, which enabled us to ward off their tactics, track them to the minutest detail and then take them on when the time was right.
In the War against Terror, like the other armed forces, Pakistan Navy too, played an important and sensitive role. They provided accurate air intelligence acquired through their air arm, (the Naval Aviation) and the highly sensitive commando operations with Naval SSG. The Naval Aviation flew back-to-back flights for provision of accurate air intelligence, which played an important role in carrying out surgical strikes in the designated target areas by the PAF and Army Aviation.
The Pakistan Navy, by operating in tandem with the PAF and Pakistan Army, was able to bond and blend as a tri-service tier of the national armed forces joint operations. The operations worth mentioning are the operations in Swat (Operation Rah-e-Rast) and Operation Rah-e-Nijat (path to salvation), launched by Pakistan Army against Tehrik-i-Taliban (TIT, Baitullah Mehsud) and their allies in the South Waziristan area of the erstwhile FATA.
Pakistan Army set a very high benchmark of professional standard and their leadership stood out at all levels. The fact that Pakistan Army lost officers from three star level to the junior level shows the true grit of their leadership. The ratio of officer to soldier in martyrdom is one of the highest universally as has never been experienced hitherto. This war put the GHQ and the Corps planners through 24/7 365 planning, coordination and execution of operations. Such grand scale operations involving corps and divisions, even SSG Divisions, were never ever employed in this manner in our 70 years history. Cooperating with the PAF, PN, Combat Aviation and SSG, Pakistan Army and its sister services have come of age and are today acknowledged internationally as being amongst the most battle-hardened and tested armed forces.
Employment of Armour
Like other arms and services, the Armoured Corps also participated as never before. The Armoured Corps regiments have even operated in the infantry roles in the War against Terror alongside the Pakistan Army and the Frontier Corps formations and units. Armour units came out true to their traditions, being involved in some of the most fierce and difficult operations. The high ratio of martyrs from the Black Berets, especially the officers, is a testament of the Cavalry traditions of leading from the front. When one goes through the list of martyrs, a large percentage is from Armoured Corps. Besides all the cavalry regiments, the "Independent Scouts Cavalry Regiment" (ISCR), which was raised
during the 'War against Terror', also came of age and has participated in all active operations.
Tanks were used for provision of effective and timely fire support. The deployment of tanks on the highest peaks in the hilly operational terrain is something that was never done before. Tanks also helped in evacuation of casualties, area sanitization by destruction of terrorists' hideouts, and establishing/augmenting posts along the International Border. Timely overwhelming firepower of tanks had been provided during the operations to destroy terrorists' hideouts and to effectively deter them from getting closer to own defenses.
Tanks were more actively used in Operation Rah-e-Nijat (Swat), Operation Al Mizan (NWA/SWA), Operation Brekhna (Mohmand), Operation Darghlam, Bia Darghlam, Khwakh Ba de Sham (Khyber), Operation Loe Sam (Bajaur), Operation Khyber-I, Khyber-II, Khyber-III and Khyber-IV and Operation Zarb-e-Azb. In July 2018, the cavalrymen made history when a tank (T-69) was deployed at the BMK Top in Khyber Agency at 12000 ft ASL. On July 15, 2018 another tank T-55 was deployed at Spinkai Top in Khyber Agency at the height of 11700 ft ASL. In both these instances the tanks were the main battle tanks of the Pakistan Army and not light tanks. India had earlier recorded deployment of their light tank (Stuart) in 1948 in 1" Kargil War at Zojila Pass at the height of 11500 ft ASL.
Although active in Siachen since the mid-1980s, the post-9/11 environment provided Army Aviation an opportunity to transform itself into a battle-hardened, experienced and professionally competent air arm of Pakistan Army. Having flown more than hundred thousand hours in support of ongoing operations, Aviation has operated hand in glove with field formations in all major and numerous minor operations. From its initial mandated role of providing limited combat and cargo support, with the increase in pace and size of operations, the overall reliance and spectrum of Aviation support broadened, encompassing multifarious roles like combat raids, air assault, heliborne operations, target engagement, casualty/medical evacuations, supply of critical stores, cooperation/communication, assisting combat aircraft in identification and neutralization of targets, Intelligence Based Operations, Intelligence Surveillance Reconnaissance (ISR), troops insertion/extrication, and movement of troops.
This period has not only seen transformation in application of all facets of aviation i.e., cargo, utility and combat assets, but has also seen a qualitative and quantitative expansion in the equipment of Army Aviation. Pakistan Army Aviation's footprint in operations in support of Pakistan Army along the Western Borders and elsewhere in the country encompassed all types of operations. Initial operations witnessed Army Aviation being controlled directly which had its own advantages in the then prevalent environment. Large-scale operations involving multiple types of helicopters were executed and with each operation, a deliberate effort was made to further hone the lessons learnt into practical solutions. The Army also started incorporating aviation advice into the planning phases of operations. Within aviation, this time period witnessed an increased awareness of the capabilities and limitations of each operator with regards to not only one's own machine, but also the machines which would be operating together. The formation of a combat team i.e., two Cobras and one Bell 412, with the Bell 412 acting as a C3 bird with the additional role of CSAR (combat, search and rescue) within the mission, was one such outcome of this thought process and experience. Passage of time saw a refinement in the battle procedures, pre and post operation, both within the field formations and aviation. Communication from and with the ground agencies, real-time radar coverage of the operational area with the help of PAF radars, combined operations involving PAF fighter aircraft followed by Pakistan Army Aviation combat assets saw tremendous improvements. This period has also allowed Pakistan Army to develop and successfully apply its ISR capability in the form of fixed and rotary wing ISR assets. Real-time feed of the operational area to formation headquarter level and if needed down to battalion commander level has greatly augmented the decision making capability and accuracy, thus further enhancing the efficiency of the Observe, Orientate, Decide and Act loop.
Here, a specific mention of the enhancement in casualty evacuation capability of Army Aviation would be in order. This facet of aviation operations alone has not only saved lives and limbs, but has added to the confidence and morale of the soldiers in the field. With improved training and enhanced night vision capability, dedicated aircraft and trained aero-medical crew available round-the-clock, the soldier knows that in case of suffering a battle wound, he will be taken care of by experts without any delay.
With improvement of employment procedures, the articulation of aviation assets also witnessed a major shift. Establishment of Forward Operating Base (FOB) at Peshawar with dedicated staff to look after the maintenance, operations and administration of aviation assets eased the demand, approval and execution of missions in support of operations on Western Borders. This setup greatly reduced the delay between mission demand and execution. It also provided Aviation an opportunity to interact with the staff at formation level before and during execution of any large-scale operation involving aviation assets thus catering for timely technical advice on aviation matters obviating chances of mission failure during critical phases of the operation. Needless to say, aircraft do not fly if they are not maintained well. Employment of Pakistan Army Aviation in operations also gave the maintenance echelons the opportunity to develop and improve maintenance capabilities. The experience gained in carrying out battle damage repairs is of immense value and has had a direct impact on timely availability of aviation assets for mission execution.
The list of operations is long, however, a few large scale watershed operations worth mentioning are Operation Bag ar Chena 2003 (NWA), Operation Kalusha I, II, III (SWA), Operation Noor Payo Khan 2006 (NWA), Operation Eagle Strike February 2008 (NWA), Operation Rah-e-Rast 2009 (Swat Valley) which witnessed large-scale heliborne operations in sync with combat and PAF fighter aircraft employment, Operation Bobargarh 2014 (SWA) with specific reference to establishment of air bridge for re-supply of troops, Operation Khyber I, II, III and IV (2014, 2015, 2016, 2018) Khyber Agency, Operation Shallow Cut 2015 (SWA), Operation Shawal 2016 (SWA) and Operation Campaign Plan 2016 (NWA, SWA).
Role of SSG
As the readers would have gleaned through the various operations in the post-9/11 scenario, the Maroon Berets (SSG) have been a part of all the operations of the Army and Frontier Corps. They have not only carried out successful operations but have been the game changers when it comes to doing the impossible. Teaming up with Combat Army Aviation, SSG turned out to be the most formidable combination in operations against the militants.
Towards attaining greater harmony, precision and intimate teamwork, a joint SSG and Army Aviation task force was constituted and even a dedicated base was constructed and inaugurated in 2003. This helped a great deal as both the forces could not only plan together but even operated together as one well-integrated team, which led to many successful operations. Between 2003 and 2013, the SSG conducted approximately 200 operational missions in erstwhile FATA that was infested with miscreants. Alongside, they kept gaining useful experience of fighting a war that started in 2003 and is still going on and has no parallel. Places where even the most modern armies would have failed, SSG delivered and brought about outstanding results.
During the process of operating in varied operational situations, the SSG has been keeping up with the current operational requirements and undergoing organisational changes and even the employment techniques. From fighting platoons and company actions, SSG battalions, brigades and even SSG division have been employed, creating history.
Among the operations carried out by the SSG the following operations stand out:
• Operation Zarb-e-Azb (July 2007). It was a follow-up of the attack on the Karachi International Airport, where 28 people were killed. Ever since 2005, Miranshah was a no-go area for the Pakistani forces. SSG not only cleared Miranshah city but most areas in the NWA and SWA with the support of army and Frontier Corps.
• Operation Peo-Char (May 24, 2009). It was an epoch-making operation that has many lessons to learn from. This Operation was the precursor of liberating larger Swat Valley and subsequently establishing the writ of the Government. This operation was one of the largest ever launched by the SSG as well as Pakistan Army and a perfect example of a successful counter insurgency operation.
• IBOs (Intelligence Based Operations). Between August 23 and September 4, 2014 SSG carried out a large number of IBOs.
• Operation Khyber II (March 19 to April 7, 2015). This was yet another feather in the cap of the SSG, where they went for the culprits who perpetrated the Army Public School Peshawar attack.
• Operation Campaign. In 2016, the Army wanted to go all out for clearing all the miscreants from the uncleared areas of North and South Waziristan, so a massive operation was planned and executed in which SSG played a pivotal role. Beginning in March 2016, a corps size operation, comprising two infantry divisions and SSG Brigade were employed, bringing about decisive results, culminating in the complete takeover of these areas.
Pakistan Army Combat Engineers
Pakistan Army Combat Engineers have always played a pivotal role towards ultimate success during application of military prongs, contingent upon provision of combat engineer support. Accomplishment of challenging tasks entrusted to Engineers remains the hallmark for long-term stability and successful end state.
Tasks Performed by Pakistan Army Combat Engineers
• Greater Capacity for IED Detection and Bomb Disposal/UXOs. IED detection and its disposal is one of the most difficult tasks in subconventional warfare. This task is performed by "Sappers" in a befitting manner. The disposal of unexploded rockets and ammunition caches of miscreants captured during operations is an important task of "Sappers".
• Route Search. A perpetual and complex task to ensure smooth and safe flow of military/logistic convoys is also performed by the Engineers.
• Construction of Helipads. Effective Aviation support remains the hallmark for successful conduct and sustenance of operations. Numerous helipads have been constructed for effective aviation support.
• Tracks Construction/Maintenance. Extensive tracks construction/maintenance remains a major task of Engineer Units employed in operational areas. It is undertaken in a befitting manner by the "Sappers" in various kinetic and non-kinetic operations conducted along the Western Front including Operation Khyber I, II, III and IV, Sapera Sar and Lakaro Sar in Khyber and Bajaur Districts.
• Pak-Afghan Border Fence. Given the porous nature of Pak-Afghan Border, unrestricted movement of hostile elements alongside illegal movement of arms, narcotics and personnel pose a persistent threat to national security. This called for an effective border management mechanism largely comprising three main components: firstly, developing specific border crossing points to regulate cross-border movement; secondly, border fortifications/post (defense construction) to check movement across numerous frequented and unfrequented routes and thirdly, the Pak-Afghan Security Fence to further restrict movement through all routes except the designated ones. Total fence required to be installed along Western Border in the Districts of KP province is 830 kms. As of now, a total of 500 kms fence has been successfully installed.
The writer is a military historian and biographer.
E-mail: [email protected]
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