x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Pakistani forces push into militant stronghold

Pakistan is fighting a battle that it claims will break the back of the Taliban insurgency within a matter of months.

Pakistani soldiers guard suspected Afghan militants paraded for the media in the troubled north-western region of Bajaur.
Pakistani soldiers guard suspected Afghan militants paraded for the media in the troubled north-western region of Bajaur.

Tang Khatta, Pakistan // Pakistan is fighting a battle that it claims will break the back of the Taliban insurgency within a matter of months. For the past six weeks Pakistani troops, supported by helicopter gunships, tanks and heavy artillery, have begun to drive Taliban militants out of the tribal area of Bajaur. On Friday Cobra helicopters pounded positions outside the village of Tang Khatta, a short distance from Khar, Bajaur's main town, as ground troops clashed with militants in an hour-long gun battle. From behind the thick mud walls of the village's complex of compounds - which militants have regularly targeted with rocket attacks since being pushed out two weeks ago - explosive rounds and machine guns were audible as both sides traded fire across fields hemmed in by barren mountains. The army has claimed it has killed more than 1,000 militants in Bajaur, a place described by commanders as a "mega-sanctuary" for militants and the "centre of gravity of the insurgency". "The threat from Bajaur radiates in all directions. If we dismantle this here and destroy its leadership, then 65 per cent of militancy will be controlled. If they lose this, they lose everything," said Major Gen Tariq Khan, the commanding officer of the Frontier Corps, a paramilitary force that is engaged in the bulk of counterinsurgency operations in the tribal areas. To the east is the restive former tourist region of Swat, and trouble is flaring south, through the Mohmand tribal area and into the major city of Peshawar. On the Afghan side is a border with the Taliban hot spot of Kunar province. It is a critical test of Pakistan's ability to combat Taliban militancy. The military claimed to have killed seven militant leaders in Bajaur. It has also cleared a road leading from the country's "settled areas" to Khar. The general conceded "everything west of Khar is a war zone". The fighting has been tough in Bajaur. "Pakistan's army has never faced this level of resistance since it launched operations in the tribal areas," a senior military official said. "Every day fighter jets are used, every day Cobras are used, yet we cannot break their strongholds." Major Gen Khan put it in simple terms. "It is a dirty war," he said. Khar and its surroundings are deserted. Soldiers have taken over the area's numerous schools, and nearly one-third of Bajaur's population of one million has fled the fighting. At Tang Khatta militants took cover in fields of half-harvested maize, caves and dried-up ravines a mile away. "I wish I could take you there but, they are in the nullahs [ravines]," Col Javaid Baloch told a group of journalists taken to the village on a visit organised by the military. But yesterday did not all go Pakistan's way. Three officers - one of whom lost both his legs - were seriously injured in the fighting. On Saturday militants attacked security forces in three places overnight. Troops repulsed each attack, killing 11 militants. Pakistan signed up - albeit reluctantly - to the US-led war on terrorism after the September 11 attacks. The military entered the forbidding terrain of the tribal areas at the end of 2001. However, relations between Pakistan and the United States have been blighted by distrust. Washington objected to a series of peace deals that the Pakistani government under the former military ruler, Pervez Musharraf, struck with militants. US frustration with Pakistan's inability or unwillingness to tackle militants has led to a spate of US missile strikes on Pakistani soil in recent months. After a US commando raid on Pakistani soil last month, the two sides have traded both accusations and fire after further alleged US incursions into Pakistan. Washington has expressed its approval of the Bajaur operation, but analysts have questioned why Islamabad allowed parts of it to be governed by a Taliban parallel government. Bajaur was deemed by US intelligence to be the sanctuary of Ayman al Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden's deputy, who escaped an air strike in Bajaur in 2006. Militants in Bajaur joined forces with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan group of Baitullah Mehsud, who is based in South Waziristan. Before the operation, militants had launched more than 60 attacks on paramilitary troops, cut off all main roads, set up training camps and assassinated a dozen tribal leaders. The battle for Bajaur began only after 2,000 to 3,000 militants overran a paramilitary post at Loi Sam, which the military has not yet retaken. "It was like putting your hand into a wasps' hive," Major Gen Khan said. Militants have dug into areas with foxholes, tunnels and trenches. More than 65 troops have been killed and 200 wounded. The Taliban have gathered reinforcements from the Waziristan tribal areas. Others are coming from Afghanistan. "We caught 200 crossing the border with rocket launchers from Afghanistan," Major Gen Khan said. Mirroring US criticism of Pakistan's inability to stem infiltration across the rugged and disputed border, the general took a swipe at the United States when he said: "But there is no such effort to stop them." Critics contend that Pakistan's operation has been over-reliant on air power. The military has made high profile use of its F-16 aircraft fleet in Bajaur. There may be a reason for that. A US congressional body is examining the utility of F-16s in Pakistan's war on terrorism after a request to the United States to upgrade its fleet. "The F-16 is the best counterinsurgency weapon," Major Gen Khan said. iwilkinson@thenational.ae