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North Waziristan operation — daunting challenge ahead

Updated September 15, 2014

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Army personnel cleaning a tank in Peshawar. — Photo by INP
Army personnel cleaning a tank in Peshawar. — Photo by INP

Flying at an altitude of 25,000 feet, the images taken from a C-130 aircraft are not as good as those from CIA-operated pilotless drones.

But these indigenously modified transport planes equipped with the day/night Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) system provide F-16s with reasonably good images and the correct coordinates to spot and strike a target with laser-guided precision bombs and eliminate it.

“No one, let alone those being targeted themselves, would know that they are being watched and monitored,” a security official remarked, looking at images showing a group of men darting out of a compound and scurrying to another in a mountainous terrain in North Waziristan.

The images were taken from a C-130; soon F-16s would roar into the sky to strike the target.

The Pakistan Air Force has spearheaded the campaign in Operation Zarb-i-Azb, pounding suspected militants’ hideouts in what until recently was the epicentre of terrorism in Pakistan as the military moved its infantry and mechanised forces to clear and hold a region where the state until June 15 enjoyed little to no authority.

Three months into the military operation, the military says it has cleared more than 80pc of the territory in North Waziristan including its regional headquarters of Miramshah, its now ruined sub-district Mirali and a communication line spreading over 80 kilometres up to Dattakhel.

As things stand, the military is now in Dattakhel, 35km west of Miramshah, consolidating its position and working out plans for the tough fight ahead in the densely forested Shawal Valley, facing occasional rocket and mortar fire from militants.

The battle in Shawal is going to be tough and bloody, should the military decide to move in. Little wonder, it is Shawal which has received much of the PAF pounding.

Having cleared Mirali, the forces are now moving northwest towards Spinwam to join forces at Tall. On Saturday night, a rocket slammed into the FC Fort killing three paramilitary soldiers. Reports suggest that militants holed up in Spinwam are now moving towards Ghariom in the south.

Looking at the map, roughly one quarter of the territory in North Waziristan remains to be cleared — Dattakhel and the areas beyond it, including Shawal. Surrounded by Preghar, a natural high-peaks fortification from one side, the military in Dattakhel on the other and a snowy winter coming up two to three months from now, militants, local and foreign, hiding in Shawal have a daunting challenge ahead.

“With snow around, mobility becomes difficult,” a security official said. “Militants would find it hard to come down and that’s when we will hit them.”

The pressure is telling. Halim Khan, a key commander of Hafiz Gul Bahadur, who, unlike others, had been pressing his chief to sue for peace, was heard recently cursing his leaders in a wireless communication. “Why did they pick up a fight if they had to run away?” an angry Halim Khan was overheard before hightailing it from Spinwam, according to a security official.

Until now, in the last three months, the military has faced little to no resistance. Most of the 44 casualties the military has suffered since the launch of the operation on June 15 have resulted from roadside bombings and rocket attacks.

Even the more than 900 militants, the military claims to have killed, perished in air bombings rather than combat.

The militant leadership has fled. Hafiz Gul Bahadur has relocated to Afghanistan’s southeastern Khost province along with his family and has taken up sanctuary with an Afghan commander, Azizullah.

An air strike prompted by intelligence on the presence of Gul Bahadur in Sanzaala in Dattakhel reportedly caused him serious head injuries but two intelligence agencies dispute the claim, insisting that the militant commander survived the attack and is hale and hearty in Khost.

Mullah Fazlullah, who heads what now remains of the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan, along with Shehryar Mehsud, is believed to have taken up sanctuary in the Naka district of Afghanistan’s Paktia province.

Khan Said alias Sajna is staying put in his South Waziristan redoubt, while continuing with efforts to come to some sort of a deal with the government that may give him a safe zone to hold on to, relocation of some military posts and permission for activities across the border.

TTP Punjab leader Asmatullah, long considered ‘a dove amongst hawks’, who had relocated along with the Haqqanis, has, not surprisingly, announced he will abandon militant ‘jihad’ inside Pakistan. Sajna may be next, should the government come to some sort of a tacit agreement with him.

As for the foreign militants including the Uzbeks, Chechens, Chinese Uighur Muslims and some Arabs, there are credible reports of their movement from Shawal to Wana and onwards to Zhob to their new jihad destination in Syria. Not all of them are leaving. Many are leaving their families behind, security officials said. Al Qaeda’s general command, because of the perils associated with the movement, is likely to stay on in the region, these officials said.

But while Zarb-i-Azb proceeds as planned, there is no indication of it coming to an end anytime soon. By the look of it, the operation is likely to continue until the end of December at least. But even if it is wound up by then, repatriation is unlikely to begin immediately afterwards.

A massive rebuilding process would have to be undertaken before that, the process of which has not yet begun, particularly in Mirali, much of which has now been reduced to rubble. With the military in full control of the tribal region, the political administration (in whatever form it remained until June 15) and a hamstrung Fata Secretariat have yet to undertake a damage and post-conflict need assessment exercise.

But the bigger question is whether the military will stay on after wrapping up the operation. Will it continue to hold the area after clearing it? The military was called in Swat to flush out the militants in May 2009 under Article 245 of the Constitution. A little over five years on, it is still in a commanding role.

Published in Dawn, September 15th , 2014