PESHAWAR: Pakistan Army said on Sunday it had launched a comprehensive operation against local and foreign militants in North Waziristan, sealing it off and requesting the Afghan National Army to plug possible escape routes across the border.
“On the directions of the government, the Armed Forces of Pakistan have launched a comprehensive operation against foreign and local terrorists who are hiding in sanctuaries in North Waziristan. The operation has been named Zarb-e-Azb”, head of the Inter-Services Public Relations, Maj. Gen. Asim Bajwa, said in a statement. Azb was the name of the sword of Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him).
The dramatic announcement came after an overnight assault by Pakistani F-16s on suspected militant hideouts in Daigan and Boya, located 25 km to the west of North Waziristan’s regional headquarters of Miramshah. The air assault that began past midnight left more than 150 people dead, local residents said.
The military which had earlier claimed to have killed more than 50 militants, most of them militants from the central Asian republic of Uzbekistan, later upped the figure to 150. Among them, it said, was Abu Abdur Rehman Almani, an expert on improvised explosive devices, associated with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.
There was no independent confirmation of the number of casualties or the identities of those killed. The ISPR statement said that North Waziristan had been isolated from other tribal regions, including South Waziristan and Kurram to block the movement of militants within and outside the tribal region.
It also said that troops had been moved to cordon off terrorists’ bases in Miramshah and Mirali, while announcements would be made to provide for an orderly evacuation of local people for which the political administration and Fata Disaster Management Authority had taken appropriate logistic and administrative measures for registration and their settlement in camps.
Inside the tribal region, however, there was little indication of any troops movement after an overnight bombings and artillery shelling in Mirali. In Miramshah, some troops were seen leaving the fort but they returned immediately afterwards.
In Mirali, some troops left their fort to establish a post on a hilltop in Hassokhel. A roadside bomb wounded three soldiers which prompted immediate artillery shelling. The troops, however, managed to set up a post as helicopter gunships hovered above to provide air cover.
The announcement regarding the launch of the military operation came as a surprise to the tribesmen in North Waziristan, who were expecting a tribal jirga which had managed to get 15 days from the military authorities to expel foreign militants from the restive region. The 15-day deadline was to expire on June 21.
It was not clear why the military had agreed to grant 15 days to the tribal jirga to mediate expulsion of foreign militants, but officials said the audacious attack on Jinnah International Airport brought forward the date of the military operation. “The whole process was speeded up. The attack on the airport tilted the balance,” the official said.
Maulvi Gul Ramzan, a key member of the jirga, said the military was no longer willing to honour their commitment and said the people were now free to leave Waziristan. Residents say thousands of people are desperately waiting to leave but have been caught in a helpless situation owing to the curfew that was put in place on Saturday morning.
Insiders said that additional forces had been brought in to further augment one division of the Pakistan Army in North Waziristan but it took the military quite some time to convince a somewhat sceptic Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif that it would be able to cope with the possible blowback from North Waziristan operation.
“The prime minister had made up his mind but he had asked the military if our security forces, civil as well as armed forces, could deal with the fallout from North Waziristan,” one insider who attended the last two crucial meetings told Dawn. “He wanted to be assured that we can cope with the blowback and we had good intelligence on the ground to finish the job,” the insider said.
It was only after Army Chief General Raheel Sharif assured him that arrangements had been made to deal with any eventuality, did the prime minister agree to give the go-ahead to the operation in the last week’s meeting, the insider said.
Also, the prime minister wanted to know if there was good enough intelligence on the ground to make the operation a success. He also wanted to know the duration of the operation, coming so close to the holy month of Ramazan later this month, amid sweltering heat. The military, the insider said, projected the operation to last three weeks but some officials now say that it might extend to the middle of Ramazan and even beyond it. “The duration of the operation is determined by several factors, it would be premature to predict its closure in a specific timeframe,” a security official said.
Insiders said the military machine would start rolling under the overall command of the Commander, 11th Corps, Lt. Gen. Khalid Rabbani, as soon as arrangements were made to evacuate the local population. Except for the roadside bombing in Mirali, there was no reaction and no resistance in Miramshah and Mirali. “Not a single bullet was fired,” a security official said.
Some security officials however, say much would depend on how militant commander, Hafiz Gul Bahadar reacts in his stronghold of Miramshah. Gul Bahadar has close association with the Haqqani network. He announced revocation of the 2007 peace agreement with the government last week, accusing it of killing innocent people and ordering people to emigrate to Afghanistan by June 10.
He relented soon afterwards when the tribal jirga led by the grandson of Faqir of Api met him and requested him to extend the deadline. Some officials said that efforts were being made to persuade Gul Bahadar to team up with the tribal jirga and form a tribal lashkar to expel foreign militants with full cooperation of the foreign forces from Mirali and Miramshah.
Since the May 21 bombings, sources say, most of the foreign militants and those associated with the anti-government TTP factions, have moved out of Mirali and Miramshah and relocated to the mountainous Shawal, Alwara Manday, Ghulam Khan and Ghariom. “What is left in Miramshah is a residue of some foreign lunatics who still want to fight it out and die,” a security official said. “There are not many targets left to bomb in those areas. So, essentially what we may see in the days to come is cordon and search to clear areas in Mirali and Miramshah. If Gul Bahadar behaves and stays neutral, that would make the job of our forces easier to chase foreign militants in the border region, otherwise, if he chooses to fight, the operation would become all the more difficult and protracted,” the official said.
Published in Dawn, June 16th, 2014