MIRAMSHAH: The military said on Wednesday it had cleared more than 80 per cent of North Waziristan’s regional headquarters but admitted that the militant leadership had escaped taking advantage of the time between the failure of the peace talks and the commencement of the operation.
“It will be a conjecture on my part because there is nothing to quantify my answer whether they left or they did not leave before the operation or during the operation but the fact of the matter is, the leadership at the moment, where we have carried out operation is not present, if they were we would have apprehended them,” the General Officer Commanding Miramshah, Maj Gen Zafarullah Khan, told a media briefing inside the military cantonment.
Outside the cantonment, Miramshah – a once bustling trading town barely 17 kilometres from Afghanistan – was deserted with not a single soul in sight. Officials say more than 800,000 people have fled the troubled tribal region.
But while the militant leadership might have sensed the military operation was coming, the dwellers of this dusty rugged town, it seemed, had had to leave in a hurry, leaving in most cases their houses open and shops half-shuttered.
Militant leaders escaped before operation
A solitary donkey around was the only sign of any other living organism seen in a town once inhibited by more than 100,000 people.
There was a distinctive stink inside the town because of clogged and overflowing sewers – a town abandoned by municipal workers for fear of kidnapping by militants, a resident who has now moved out said.
Some houses, hideouts and shops marked “Ok” with red paint were pried open by the military looking for suspects and terrorist hardware. Some buildings, which military said, were being used by militants for boarding and lodging, had received direct artillery hits.
A house built by the late TTP leader Hakeemullah Mahsud now stands flattened blown up by the security forces. And an American Humvee that Hakeemullah’s men had seized from Khyber tribal region while attacking a Nato supply convoy to Afghanistan in November 2009 now stands parked inside the cantonment in Miramshah. The Humvee was recovered during the operation, a military official said.
But there were tell-tale signs and signature local and foreign militants across the town with factories manufacturing improvised explosives devices, a training centre for suicide bombers which one knowledgeable local resident confirmed belonged to the Haqqani network, a lock-up facility, a basement dormitory for militants and a network of long under-ground tunnels that opened up in different places and literature and training manuals in foreign language.
The military has its presence in and around the town. It says that it has lost 24 soldiers since the launch of the operation in raids, rocket and mortar attacks. “Where there is a little bit of resistance, we overcome them,” Gen Zafar said.
He said his troops had set up 250 posts as part of what he described as strangulation and sealing off strategy. But he acknowledged that while the strategy had denied the militants the liberty of freedom and mobility in large number, there was no way to stop individuals from slipping away.
Many people, he said, took advantage of the ensuing confusion following the failure of the peace talks with militants and discussion on launching the military operation.
“It’s not possible to create water-tight or airtight compartment where an individual cannot escape. Given the context of the terrain, the context of who they are, it will be wrong on my part to say that they did not escape, yes they did.
“They had smelled that the operation is about to be launched. The talks had failed, the build-up for the operation had already begun and they could see that, they could sense and smell and, therefore, the leadership was not here, the leadership abandoned place.”
But military spokesman Maj Gen Asim Bajwa said no matter where the militant leadership was, clear instructions had been given to chase them down and nail them down through what he described as an intelligence-driven integrated security mechanism.
“The militant leadership whatever is that is left of it including Fazlullah and others are across the border in Afghanistan and we have asked the Afghans and other forces to take appropriate measures to interdict and capture them,” he said at the briefing.
“We have a clear mandate. All local and foreign militants will have to be eliminated, whether local or foreign militants, Haqqani network or Uzbeks”, he said.
“When our forces move, they don’t make distinction. We are colour-blind,” a senior military commander said separately.
But military officials are satisfied with the progress of the operation. Clearing the town of improvised explosive devices, they say, would take time.
“The enormity of the task at hand is such that it is going to take time to clear the town of the IEDs. More than 23 tons of prepared form or the other IEDs are there in an area of 1.5 kilometre by one kilometre. It is a very big task. There are more than hundred tons of raw materials laying out there for homemade explosives in the whole of town,” Gen Zafar said.
“We have also commenced operation along Tochi Valley that leads towards Dattakhel in the west and we have managed to secure area till Boya Bridge that is almost halfway through to Dattakhel in a very short span of time. There was a little bit of resistance but that was overcome.”
Two-kilometre long tunnel: The GOC Miramshah said his forces had discovered a tunnel in Machis Camp that was two kilometres long.
“I couldn’t find the other end of it. It should be something close to two kilometres. Just one tunnel and it’s very well laid out structure where these people used to hide and the leadership used to hide during military operation,” he said.
Al Qaeda shop: He said that there were signs and signature of Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement and Al Qaeda in the town. “There is evidence of Al Qaeda,” he said.
Gen Zafar said the town’s main bazaar had an ‘Al Qaeda shop’ run by AQ members. “They sold sensitive military-oriented kind of gadgetry which is used for enhancing their range of communication, enhancing the efficacy of their IEDs, some research and development with reference to the manufacturing of future generation of IEDs.”
Published in Dawn, July 10th, 2014