THE PAKISTANI army launched a long-awaited operation against foreign and local militants yesterday in a tribal region near the Afghan border, hours after jets pounded insurgent hideouts in the country’s northwest.
The move effectively ended the government’s policy of trying to negotiate with Pakistani Taleban militants instead of using force to end the years of fighting that has killed tens of thousands of civilians and members of the security forces.
The North Waziristan tribal area, where the military said the operation is targeted, is one of the last areas in the tribal regions where the military has not launched a large operation.
Militant groups including the Pakistani Taleban, al-Qaeda and Haqqani network have long used the region as a base from which to attack both Pakistan and neighbouring Afghanistan.
Military spokesman General Asim Saleem Bajwa said: “Using North Waziristan as a base, these terrorists had waged a war against the state of Pakistan.”
The West has pushed Pakistan to clear out militants in North Waziristan because they often use it as a sanctuary from which to attack Nato and Afghan troops.
But Pakistan has said its troops were already too spread out across the northwest, and the military has also wanted political support from the civilian government to carry out an operation likely to spark a bloody backlash across the country.
Last night, the defence minister aggressively supported the operation but there was no comment from Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
Defence minister Khawaja Muhammad Asif said: “Now we have to fight this do or die war. We will fight it until the end.”
News of the operation came exactly a week after an attack by militants against the Karachi airport killed at least 36 people including ten militants. The attack shocked Pakistanis and appeared to mark a turning point.
Pakistan has been criticised for fighting some militants such as the Pakistani Taleban which attacks the state, but maintaining links with other militant groups such as the Afghan Taleban or Haqqani network that they feel help them maintain influence in Afghanistan.
Pakistan already has a sizeable military presence in North Waziristan, an estimated 28,000 to 30,000 troops, said defence analyst Zahid Hussain.
Mr Hussain said militants had been using North Waziristan as a training base. This operation will establish the military’s control across the territory and make it more difficult for militants to freely operate there. But, he warned, it will not be easy and is likely to spark reprisals.
“It is going to be a long drawn-out war. It is not going to end soon,” he said.
Even before the announcement, Pakistani jets yesterday pounded insurgent hideouts in North Waziristan, targeting militants who carried out the Karachi airport siege, officials said.
The military said more than 80 militants were killed in the airstrikes, although intelligence officials earlier put the toll as high as 100. “There were confirmed reports of presence of foreign and local terrorists in these hideouts who were linked in planning the Karachi airport attack,” the military said.
Residents in North Waziristan said they woke up after midnight to the sound of jets overhead, but said the strikes happened in a remote, mountainous area. “All the family members gathered in the yard in fear,” said Tawab Khan, from the village of Boyapul, about five miles from where the airstrikes hit. “We could hear big bangs but they didn’t come from very close to our area.”
Already, tens of thousands of residents of North Waziristan have fled the region due to military airstrikes and out of fear of more. News of the operation will likely increase the exodus.
The military said most of the dead in yesterday’s strikes were Uzbeks. Uzbek militants have long based themselves in Pakistan’s northwestern tribal areas.
The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, along with the Pakistani Taleban, claimed responsibility for the airport attack.