Pakistani military launches ground offensive against Taliban and al-Qaeda

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Monday, October 19, 2009

Pakistani officials say the military has launched its much anticipated ground offensive against the Taliban and al-Qaeda in the South Waziristan tribal region. Fierce fighting has broken out and dozens of casualties are reported on both sides.

North and South Waziristan (2006)
Image: Bejnar.

This mountainous district forms part of the Afghan border, which United States officials call the most dangerous place in the world. It is considered to be a stronghold for the Taliban. An attack by US drones on this area killed the former Pakistani Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud and it shelters the new leader Hakimullah Mehsud. It is also has training camps for suicide bombers. The US has put pressure on the Pakistani government to deal with militancy in the area.

30,000 troops which had been moved into the area over the past few months moved out of their bases in and around South Waziristan on Saturday, hours after top military and political leaders were briefed by army chief General Ashfaq Pervez Kayanimain in the capital, Islamabad. The troops advanced north towards the Mehsud stronghold of Makeen, west towards Kunigaram, Saam and Baddar, and east towards Kotkai, Spinkai Raghzai.

Pakistan has experienced a wave of terror attacks, including suicide blasts targeting international and security organizations, coordinated attacks around the country's cultural center, Lahore, and an assault on the army's headquarters near Islamabad. Some 175 people have died in the past two weeks. The government has blamed the Pakistani Taliban, which is based in South Waziristan, for the violence.

"The recent upsurge of terror incidents in the country were condemned and it was agreed that these elements pose a serious threat to the sovereignty and integrity of the state [...] In the given circumstances, the national consensus is reaffirmed to establish and maintain the writ of the state to weed out these elements," said Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani.

these elements pose a serious threat to the sovereignty and integrity of the state

Yousuf Raza Gilani

Hours ahead of Saturday's offensive, Pakistani authorities imposed a curfew and turned off mobile phone service in parts of South Waziristan in the district of Wana, as well as in Shakai and Tiarza.

Despite the military's superiority in numbers, former security chief of the tribal regions, Mahmood Shah, told the Voice of America (VOA) news agency it would not be an easy battle. "This 30,000 against 10,000 is a conventional battle," he said. "The militants do not fight conventional battles." He also said he expects the military will face an enemy deeply entrenched in the mountainous and remote region. He also cautions that militants will likely launch suicide attacks elsewhere.

Top army spokesman Major General Athar Abbas has stated that the offensive could last up to two months, but that because of impending climatic conditions they would try to complete the attack by snowfall. A formal announcement on the start of the operation is expected by Prime Minister Gilani.

Officials have said that four soldiers were wounded during clashes and that remote-controlled bomb attacks killed two soldiers in North Waziristan and one in South Waziristan. The three soldiers' bodies have been taken to Ramzak. There are also unconfirmed reports of militant deaths.

A senior military official has said that initially the objective is to establish footholds, but that they would mobilise three divisions of the military, paramilitary and police, with the final total rising up to 60,000 troops. According to a senior government official in Pakistan's semi-autonomous tribal belt, the objective is to remove all militants from the area. He also said that "[t]his has been in the works for a long time. It was only a question of timing and the timing was decided. Troops were in place and they moved in."

This is not the first time the military has launched an offensive in the tribal region. But those previous operations were not successful, mainly because militants killed sympathetic tribal leaders and opposition political parties refused to offer their support.

Experts estimate the number of militants between 10,000 and 12,000 from the Tehreek-e-Taliban movement in South Waziristan and up to 25,000 across Pakistan's semi-autonomous tribal belt, with up to 5,000 Uzbek fighters supporting the Taliban.

For the past several months since the anti-Taliban offensive in and around Swat Valley, the military has built up its forces around South Waziristan.

Manuel Bessler, head of the United Nations's Office for Coordinating Humanitarian Affairs in Pakistan, told Voice of America that many civilians have fled the area. "We had IDPs, internally displaced people, since May about 77,000, up to 80,000," he said. "Now with this more intense fighting and military operation inside [South] Waziristan, we have a daily outflow of 70 to 100 families from the area." Official figures put at 90,000 the people displaced from South Waziristan since August.