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6 months later, Pakistan army still fighting Taliban

Monday marks 6 months since Pakistan's army began its anti-Taliban operations in North Waziristan. The fight has since broadened to include other militant groups and has spread across the tribal belt, displacing almost 1.5

6 months later, Pakistan army still fighting Taliban

By Aamir Latif


Six months fighting militants in the country's tribal belt has given Pakistan's army better relations with the U.S., according to analysts, but the prospect of eliminating the Taliban remains as distant as ever. 

The army surged into the North Waziristan tribal area, which the U.S. had dubbed the "heartland of militancy" on June 15 with Operation Zarb-e-Azb -- translated as "strike of the sword" --  aiming to dismantle the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan network of militants. Since then, more than 1500 militants have been killed but the fight has spread to include other parts of the tribal belt and several other militant groups. 

Since October much of the fighting has been focused in Khyber Agency, just 15 kilometers from the important northwestern city of Peshawar, where dispersed Taliban militants have found new havens. That led to a new operation, called Khyber-One, and a new wave of displaced tribesmen. 

“The six-month long operation is a story of successes and failures simultaneously,” says Ishtiaq Mehsud, an Islamabad-based security analyst. “The army has successfully ousted Taliban from North Waziristan and captured their strongholds but simultaneously, it has failed to eliminate them.”

According to Mehsud, the result of dispersing the Taliban has meant the militants are now having a destabilizing effect on other nearby tribal areas, leading to increasing numbers of displaced people. 

“The IDPs (internally displaced persons) are getting frustrated with every passing day, which may ruin the objectives and successes of the military operations,” Mehsud warns.

-- Internal refugees waiting for return

The army claims to have cleared 90 percent of North Waziristan but after six months it is still unable to provide any hint of when the nearly 1 million internal refugees stranded in adjoining districts can return. 

“We promise that we will make your area a better place for you,” Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif assured them, not for the first time, last week.

The displaced have held sit-ins and protests and have warned of a long march on the capital city of Islamabad; the government's response has always been to say they will be able to return "soon."

“I honestly believe that neither the government nor the army are in a position to give any timeframe for completion of ongoing operations,” Mehsud observes. “It’s not a walk in the park. The army is facing a daunting task.”

He says the army is likely to face the same problems it did when rooting the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan out from neighboring South Waziristan in 2009. 

“It’s been over five years, hundreds of thousands of IDPs from South Waziristan have not been able to return to their homes,” he says. “It is because the army managed to disperse TTP militants from South Waziristan but did not crush them.”

“I am afraid, the people of North Waziristan are going to face a long ordeal in line with their neighbors," Mehsud says.

Tahir Khan, an Islamabad-based security and political analyst agrees with Mehsud and believes the operation will continue through the harsh winter in the mountainous northwest.

“North Waziristan operation appears to be the toughest operation so far because it is the strongest bastion of all kind of militants ranging from Taliban to Al-Qaeda and from Uzbek militants to Chechens,” Khan says.

He says that though large towns have been secured, the Taliban are still “very much” present in the villages and mountains, surviving a barrage of drone and air strikes.

“Taliban and their affiliates, in my opinion will not easily be ousted from North Waziristan because of tough geographical conditions, which will deteriorate in winter, especially in the mountains where ground operations are almost impossible,” Khan says.

He points out however that while the Taliban is now fighting on more fronts in the tribal areas, it is also more divided with a series of breakaway factions forming since the operation began. 

“The TTP currently stands divided into four groups, which too is a big success for the army,” Khan says.

-- Keeping the U.S. happy

Relations between Pakistan and the U.S. hit a low ebb following the killing of Al-Qaeda chief Osama Bin laden by U.S. Navy Seals in May 2011 in the city of Abbotabad, apparently without Pakistan's approval. Recently however, there have been signs of improvement, with Barack Obama's administration willing to co-operate with Pakistan in curbing militancy. 

Recent battlefield successes propelled Washington to invite Pakistan’s powerful army chief, General Raheel Sharif, earlier this month ahead of the U.S.-led coalition’s preparations to withdraw most of its soldiers from Afghanistan by the end of December 2014.

Analysts believe the renewed warmth in relations is the outcome of the Pakistani army's action against the formidable Haqqani network, a group blamed for numerous brazen attacks on foreign forces in Afghanistan. The U.S. had long suspected Pakistan of leaving the Haqqani network to operate in North Waziristan.

The U.S. recently responded by handing three Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan prisoners, arrested by Afghan security forces, over to Islamabad. 

“Recent statements from top U.S. officials suggest that Obama administration is satisfied with the progress of military operations, especially action against Haqqani network,” says Khan.

Those operations have also eased the rocky relationship with neighboring Afghanistan, whose new President Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai was given an unprecedented welcome in Islamabad in November, becoming the first Afghan head of state to visit Pakistan's army headquarters.  

“Not only is the Pakistan army acting against the Haqqani network and Afghan Taliban hiding on Pakistan’s soil, but the U.S. forces in Afghanistan too are targeting Pakistani Taliban operating from Afghanistan,” Khan says, referring to the killing of several Pakistani Taliban leaders in U.S. drone strikes on the Afghan side of the border in the last two weeks.

He warns however that chasing the Haqqani network could hurt Pakistan's interests in Afghanistan, as it has long suspected of links to the Haqqani network and Afghan Taliban. 

“Pakistan have already lost several friends in Afghanistan, and now it is going to lose the last friend too,” he says. “I wonder how would Pakistan be able to influence Afghan Taliban for peace talks when it is targeting them here”.   


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