More than 30 000 Pakistani soldiers launched a long-expected assault on the Taliban lair of South Waziristan on Sunday, following a fortnight of militant attacks that left 175 people dead and underlined the threat to Pakistan’s stability.
Early clashes were reported to have claimed more than 20 casualties as government soldiers pressed in on the mountain stronghold from three sides, backed by helicopter gunships, warplanes and artillery. A fifth of the local population has fled in recent weeks.
The operation is Pakistan’s largest drive against Islamist extremists. The army says that it has deployed the 30 000 troops against an estimated 10 000 Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters. The battle zone is the Mehsud tribal territory, whose impoverished villages have a long history of producing formidable tribal fighters. The Pakistan Taliban in the region are now led by Hakimullah Mehsud, the successor of Baitullah Mehsud, who was killed in an American drone strike last August.
A successful operation is vital to Pakistan’s stability. Over the last two weeks militants have launched a series of audacious attacks across the country, including the suicide bombing of a United Nations office in Islamabad, three simultaneous attacks on police sites in Lahore and, most brazenly, a 22-hour siege of the army headquarters in Rawalpindi last weekend. Authorities said that most incidents were orchestrated by Waziristan-based commanders.
South Waziristan is also a notorious hub of al-Qaeda fighters plotting against the west. “There is a huge presence of foreign militants,” army spokesperson Major-General Athar Abbas said tonight, describing them as Uzbeks, Arabs and North African Muslims. There has been frequent speculation that Osama bin Laden is sheltering in Waziristan, but many experts think it unlikely he would remain in such a heavily contested area.
Thousands of troops and allied tribal militias have sealed off entry points to the south, east and north of the Mehsud stronghold. Anwar Kamal, a tribal leader from neighbouring Lakki Marwat, said he had been asked to provide hundreds of armed villagers to seal off mountain passes leading from the area.
Military sources predicted the fighting would last at least six weeks and would concentrate on the Taliban strongholds of Ladha and Makeen. Some think it may take longer — the treacherous passes of Waziristan, many of which rise to 7 000ft, have frustrated invading armies since the time of Alexander the Great. In the 1930s and 1940s the British army fought a protracted campaign against forces led by a fierce local cleric known as the Faqir of Ipi. The Faqir evaded capture and died of natural causes in 1960.
The Taliban are expected to strike back with ambushes, suicide attacks and roadside explosions. In early fighting on Sunday a bomb rocked a convoy passing though Ladha district, killing one soldier and wounding three others, AP reported. Most information could not be corroborated — phone lines were cut to the area for most of today and foreign reporters are forbidden from entering the tribal belt without permission.
South Waziristan is the redoubt of Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Two weeks ago its leader, Hakimullah Mehsud, vowed to avenge the death of his predecessor, Baitullah, with attacks on Pakistani and US targets. Several of the subsequent attacks were coordinated with Punjab-based jihadist groups, highlighting the Taliban’s alliances with other extremist groups.
Military, government and opposition political leaders met for a briefing on the operation on Friday in a show of national unity. The army made three failed attempts to negotiate peace deals with militants in Waziristan between 2004 and 2006. This time, it said, it was no longer prepared to talk.
But the army has made tactical compromises that leave western allies uncomfortable. In order to encircle the Mehsud area, it appears to have reached agreements with rival militant groups controlled by Maulvi Nazir in South Waziristan and Qari Gul Bahadur in North Waziristan. Although less famous than the Mehsud-led TTP, they send many Taliban fighters into Afghanistan.
The offensive has triggered a flood of refugees, although the humanitarian crisis is not expected to be as severe as in Swat this summer, when an estimated two million people were displaced across Swat and neighbouring districts. Tariq Hayat Khan, the secretary for law and order in the tribal areas, said that 12 800 families had fled from South Waziristan in the last six weeks, from a population he estimated at 110 000 people.
Provincial authorities said they expected 250 000 people to be displaced by the operation. Many have fled to the town of Dera Ismail Khan at the southern end of North West Frontier Province. Western aid agencies offering relief items, however, are based across the river Indus in Punjab province due to security concerns.
The offensive is backed by the US, which considers Pakistan’s tribal areas as a major rear base for Taliban fighters attacking Nato soldiers, even though South Waziristan does not share a border with Afghanistan. According to reports, the Obama administration is racing to send night-vision goggles and other equipment to aid the effort.
Meanwhile the US is continuing with its drone war — the latest strike, on Thursday night, hit a compound controlled by the warlord Jalaluddin Haqqani in North Waziristan.
Rustum Shah Mohmand, a retired diplomat and analyst, predicted the operation would not be prolonged. “The area is too small and the militants are not supported by the people,” he said. But, he added, even if it succeeded Pakistan’s militant problem would not go away.
“One should be under no illusion that Pakistan will become quiet as a lake. This is not going to happen,” he said. “There are entrenched militant groups across the country. And they will continue to attack.” – guardian.co.uk