ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – The move by Pakistan’s military into the Taliban and al-Qaida stronghold of South Waziristan on Saturday launched a risky offensive widely seen as the key to crushing a militancy that has destabilized the nuclear-armed nation.
The challenges are daunting: The military will face unforgiving terrain along the Afghan border that has long been viewed as a possible hide-out for Osama bin Laden, as well as a battle-hardened enemy likely to respond by stepping up bloody attacks across the country. The government believes more than 80% of the terrorism inflicted on Pakistan originates in the region.
As the armed forces embark on their bid to uproot the Taliban, they must also cope with ferocious foreign militants who, unlike their Taliban counterparts, cannot flee and blend into Pakistani society, and therefore will fight to the last man, analysts say.
Moreover, a surge in attacks in the last two weeks has revealed burgeoning collaboration between Taliban fighters and militants from Punjab, Pakistan’s heartland and its most populous province.
Analysts foresee the potential for a countermove that relies on Punjabi militants to unleash a wave of terrorist strikes in the capital, Islamabad, and Punjab’s largest cities, Lahore and the garrison city of Rawalpindi.
“In terms of difficulty, this is high up on the chart,” said Khalid Aziz, an Islamabad-based defense analyst and a former chief secretary of the North-West Frontier Province, which oversees the tribal areas. “Punjab is beginning to crop up as a real issue… . This could be highly destabilizing.”
In recent months, the U.S. has pushed the Pakistani government to forge ahead with an offensive in Waziristan. President Barack Obama now is considering a shift in focus of the war in Afghanistan to emphasize al-Qaida rather than the Taliban as the biggest threat to American security. However, the Pakistani Taliban has been a major source of destabilization in Pakistan, a key U.S. ally in the war on terrorism.
The operation began at 3 a.m. Saturday, with troops entering into the swath of South Waziristan controlled by the Mahsud tribe, said an army spokesman who asked for anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the matter.
The Taliban is based there, and its leader, Hakimullah Mahsud, is a member of the Mahsud tribe. His predecessor, Baitullah Mahsud, killed Aug. 5 in a U.S. drone strike, also belonged to the tribe.
Late Saturday, the military reported 26 militants and four soldiers were killed in initial fighting. Access to the tribal areas is restricted, and there was no way to verify information supplied by the military.
On Friday, army Chief of Staff Ashfaq Kayani met with the country’s top government and political leaders at the residence of Prime Minister Yusaf Raza Gillani and told the group it was crucial to begin operations in Waziristan, given the recent rise in terrorist attacks.
At least 175 people have been killed in the attacks, which have included a series of suicide bombings and commando-style raids on key security installations. Last weekend, a team of militants attacked the army’s heavily fortified headquarters in Rawalpindi, a bold strike on what amounts to Pakistan’s Pentagon. The attack left 19 dead.
The Taliban has claimed responsibility for those attacks, and has warned the violence would increase if the government went ahead with the offensive in Waziristan.
For months, the military has been getting ready for the offensive by pounding Taliban hide-outs, training camps and weapons caches with airstrikes from fighter jets and helicopter gunships, and by blocking the militant group’s supply and escape routes. It has about 30,000 troops involved in the Waziristan offensive.
The army spokesman said the offensive is expected to take about six to eight weeks. Commanders would like to wrap up the operation before it gets bogged down by the first snows of winter, which come in early December.
The desolate, rocky terrain gives militants a distinct advantage, analysts say. They can use scores of caves and goat paths that scar the region’s plateaus and basins. And because Waziristan is largely undeveloped, military convoys transporting troops and supplies are easy marks for ambushes on the few roads that crisscross the region.
The militants’ ranks in South Waziristan number about 10,000, of which about 1,200 are hardened Uzbek fighters. Al-Qaida still maintains training camps and hide-outs in the region, and South Waziristan has been regarded as one of the possible lairs of Bin Laden.
The offensive in South Waziristan was preceded by the military’s successful campaign in northwest Pakistan’s Swat Valley, where troops regained control of much of the region from Taliban militants. Pockets of resistance remain in Swat, however, and the Taliban’s leader there, Maulana Qazi Fazlullah, has yet to be caught or killed.
In the weeks following the Swat operation, Pakistani leaders talked about forging ahead with an offensive in Waziristan but never followed through. Analysts say the military’s munitions, particularly its stockpile of precision-guided missiles, were depleted and needed to be replenished before a Waziristan offensive could be carried out.
In the meantime, the U.S. sped up drone missile strikes in North and South Waziristan. One of those strikes killed Baitullah Mahsud, dealing a severe blow to the Taliban by taking out a leader who had succeeded in unifying the militancy’s disparate factions.
Many experts thought Mahsud’s death marked an ideal moment for the Pakistani government and military to mount an offensive in Waziristan, when the Taliban found itself weakened and rudderless.
“That was an opportunity that should have been taken up,” Aziz said. “We are not very fast on our feet.”
Previous offensives waged by the military against Waziristan’s militants sputtered. Operations in 2003 and 2004 were followed by cease-fires that merely allowed Taliban militants to regroup and consolidate their authority in the region.
Analysts say the government has widespread support within the Pakistani population to launch the offensive. However, ensuring support from the tribal groups that live in the Waziristan region will depend on the level of civilian damage created by the offensive, as well as how thousands of Pashtun villagers fleeing Waziristan are treated as they seek refuge.
Amnesty International reported Friday that 90,000 to 150,000 South Waziristan Pakistanis have fled the region since July, when the military began bombarding Taliban hide-outs in the area.
Support for the war could also diminish if militants answer back with a new wave of terrorist strikes in Pakistan’s major cities, analysts say.
“If there are more terrorist operations in Punjab,” Aziz said, “people will forget about what’s happening in Waziristan.”