Once described as the “epicentre of terrorism”, Miramshah is now reduced to mere rubble. The long row of hotels that had sprung up over the last few years and had been used by foreign militants as rest and relaxation centres have been blown up by air strikes and heavy artillery fire.
Sitting in the midst of the destruction is a sprawling mosque, which was more than a place of worship. A labyrinth of rooms in the basement served as the joint headquarters of the various terrorist groups operating from the area. Soldiers stood guard on top of the half-destroyed structures. Although the town and the surrounding villages are now under full control of the army, small bands of militants are still lurking around in the hills.
It is not a very different scene in Mirali, another hub of foreign fighters. Weeks of fierce fighting have left the town completely ravaged. Nothing is left of the shops that supplied IEDs and suicide jackets to the militants, but the town is still not completely cleared of land mines. From the helicopter, the entire region looks deserted with no sign of human life except for soldiers taking position on the hills.
This is what it looks like after five months of the army operation Zarb-i-Azb in North Waziristan. The fighting is far from over as winter sets in. Some of the high peaks are already covered with snow. The militants are scattered in small bands engaging the troops in hit-and-run ambushes. Air force jets frequently bomb suspected militant hideouts.
Five months after the launch of Zarb-i-Azb the fighting is far from over.
Five soldiers including a young major were killed in a search operation in Dattakhel area the day we visited the agency. The troops are facing some resistance from the fighters belonging to the Hafiz Gul Bahadur group. Having been pampered for long by our security establishment, the most enigmatic of all the militant commanders has proven to be treacherous and the deadliest of enemies.
A week before the start of the operation, Gul Bahadur declared a war on the state, breaking an eight-year peace deal. He had used the truce to strengthen his network and made alliances with other militant groups. Though he himself is believed to have crossed over into Afghanistan, his fighters are still active in the Dattakhel area.
The role of the Haqqani Network in turning North Waziristan into a centre of international militancy was no less. Having been protected for long by the security agencies the network has effectively been the main patron of almost all militant groups including the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) operating from the agency. The footprints of the Haqqanis are visible all over Miramshah and Danda Derpakhel.
It was in the basement of the mosque in the main Miramshah bazaar that the group held the American soldiers captured in Afghanistan. An American Humvee vehicle and a pick-up used by Afghan police were among the weapons and other stuff seized by the troops during the operation. Though most of its fighters are said to have left the area, the troops have clear orders not to spare anyone coming in the way.
North Waziristan has aptly been described as a “witches’ brew” with all kinds of local and foreign militant groups making the agency their training ground. One of the largest groups operating from the agency consisted of the militants belonging to the East Turkestan Islamic Movement which has been blamed for carrying out terrorist attacks in China’s Xinjiang province.
According to one intelligence official, at least 200 members of the group were based in the agency before the operation. Needless to say, the group could not have operated without strong support from the TTP, as well as other international jihadi groups. Months before the operation 15 to 20 Chinese girls had arrived there to marry their compatriots. For sure, they felt at home in these jihadi surroundings.
What happened to those thousands of local and foreign jihadi fighters? Many of them have been killed, while others are still holding on in the mountains. Some of them are believed to have moved to Shawal valley that boasts one of most treacherous terrains. The thick forests and natural hideouts in the several caves that dot the mountains make tracking down the insurgents near impossible.
I had visited the densely forested remote corner of the valley in February 2007. The snow-covered ridge at almost 300 metres was the home of the last Pakistani border post on the Durand Line. There was no habitation for miles with few metres’ visibility, making the terrain an ideal haven for the insurgents.
The advent of winter could slow down the operation, but the harsh weather would be more disadvantageous for the insurgents. They would have no option but to come down to the plains or flee to other areas. The US drone strikes, which have increased in the last few months in Shawal, have also contained the mobility of the insurgents.
The North Waziristan operation is unique in many ways. The role of intelligence has contributed hugely to the targeting with precision of militant sanctuaries. The intelligence-based crackdown on the terrorist network across the country before the start of the army operation in the agency has also helped contain the blowback in other parts of the country.
Indeed, it is the most difficult battle the Pakistani forces are fighting in the forbidding terrain. The valour of the soldiers is critical to winning this war. The high ratio of officers killed in the operation gives some idea about the way this battle is being fought; officers leading from the front have established a new legacy.
But unfortunately, it is a forgotten war for our political leadership. As one officer lamented: “It is painful to pick up every day the bodies of our fellow soldiers and young officers often blown into pieces by IEDs, but it is more agonising to hear some politicians sympathising with the killers.”
The writer is an author and journalist.
Published in Dawn, November 19th , 2014