Sinai: The Pakistan lesson

If the Egyptian crackdown in Sinai fails, Israel might resort to a weapon from the Afghan-Pak front.

Egyptian soldiers in Sinai 370 (photo credit: reuters)
Egyptian soldiers in Sinai 370
(photo credit: reuters)
Since the revolution early last year, Egypt has governed its Sinai region in name only. Can it reassert control? For Egypt and Israel, Pakistan’s Waziristan region provides a cautionary tale. The US -led invasion of Afghanistan after the terror attacks on America in September 2001 destabilized Waziristan, an area in western Pakistan bordering on Afghanistan. Divided into northern and southern administrative areas, it is populated and largely governed by Wazir and Mehsud tribes. Fleeing American forces and their Afghan allies, Taliban and Al-Qaeda gunmen swarmed into the region.
From this base, a Pakistani wing of the Afghan Taliban emerged from the local tribes and launched an insurgency and terror attacks throughout the country. In July 2007, Taliban fighters and jihadists took over the Lal Masjid mosque in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad.
The army counterattacked and over 100 people died. A countrywide terror campaign ensued that has cost thousands of lives.
The Pakistani Army also responded by launching an offensive against the Taliban in South Waziristan in October 2009. Killing hundreds of Taliban fighters, the army retook control of the towns in the area.
Though the number of attacks has decreased, terrorism remains a fact of life. In addition, the army’s refusal to take the offensive in North Waziristan has allowed the Haqqani insurgent network of the Taliban to operate there and launch attacks into Afghanistan. Pakistan remains a sanctuary for the Afghan Taliban and its insurgency.
Egypt faces a similar situation in Sinai. Ever since Israel handed back the peninsula to Egypt after the 1979 peace treaty, the leaders of the Bedouin tribes have greatly expanded their authority in the region.
The Egyptian revolution resulted in a breakdown in law and order in Sinai. Residents have attacked police stations throughout the peninsula, especially in the city of El Arish. Some 23,000 inmates escaped from Egyptian prison during the upheaval. Many of them took refuge among the Sinai Bedouin.
Terrorists intent on waging global jihad took advantage of the anarchy in Sinai. Like the Taliban and the foreign jihadists in Pakistan, they have launched attacks against Israel and their host country, Egypt.
Gunmen attacked an Egyptian military base in Sinai August 9, killing 16 soldiers. Hijacking two armored vehicles, they entered Israel but were stopped by the IDF.
Stung by the brazen attack, the Egyptian military launched a counteroffensive and attempted to reassert their authority. With Israel’s approval, Egyptian helicopter gunships struck targets in El Arish and other areas. The Egyptian Army also boosted the lineup of men and equipment in the peninsula.
Like Afghanistan, Israel has suffered from its southern neighbor’s inability to maintain law and order and the destabilization of its once quiet southern border is a strategic nightmare. On June 18, three terrorists crossed from Sinai into Israel and ambushed two vehicles. Using explosives, rocket-propelled grenades and rifle fire, they killed an Israeli construction worker.
Unfortunately, the treaty with Egypt limits Israel’s options. Israel might need to renegotiate the agreement to allow a greater Egyptian military presence in the peninsula. The defense establishment will need to determine red lines to prevent an Egyptian build-up from becoming a security threat. If the new Egyptian President Mohammed Morsy, a former Muslim Brotherhood leader, agrees to renegotiate, then he and his party will have taken a step toward reaffirming recognition of Israel.
If the Egyptian crackdown in Sinai fails, Israel might resort to another weapon from the Afghan-Pak front: a Predator drone fleet. The US has used the drones to decimate the leadership of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. With Egypt’s secret approval, Israel could use the same means to reduce the terror threat in Sinai.
For Israel and Egypt, there is no easy method for dealing with this security quagmire, but Pakistan’s failures and successes might point the way. •
Naim Peress is an attorney and thriller writer in the New York area.