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PAF goes on high alert; targets to be softened up before ground attack
 
 
Muhammad Saleh Zaafir
Monday, May 30, 2011
From Print Edition
 
 

 

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan has decided to commence a careful and meticulous military offensive in North Waziristan Agency (NWA), the tribal area adjacent to Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan, where military operation was not earlier conducted.

 

Pakistan has never refused to undertake the operation but had been insisting that it would first consolidate its position in other parts of the tribal areas where it has carried out military action and achieved tremendous successes.

 

The government on Friday opened the Razmak military college after its closure for two years and removed all the barricades in the area. It was an indication that things had eased up in the most volatile area in the tribal region. The decision pertaining to the mode of action and its scale has been left with the command of the armed forces. Interestingly, Nato leaders, especially Washington, had been insisting since long to initiate the operation in the tribal areas adjacent to the Taliban stronghold of Khost province.

 

The understanding for carrying out the operation was developed during the recently-concluded visit of the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen. Pakistan has always maintained that any such operation would be at its own time of choosing. It argues that its 140,000 troops committed to the northwest are too stretched fighting militants who pose a domestic threat.

 

Highly-placed sources told The News that the strategy drawn up for action in North Waziristan had been worked out long ago and accordingly the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) will be put in operation in first place. It will be softening the targets already determined and pointed out by the intelligence network and that would be followed by the ground action. A joint operation with the allies has also been discussed but no decision has yet been made for it since it involves numerous sensitivities. In case the two sides agreed to go for a joint action, it would be for the first time in the present war that foreign boots will get a chance to be on Pakistan’s soil with the consent of the host country. It will be done after a careful assessment of the situation and deliberations by the armed forces’ command in Pakistan.

 

The sources reminded that the armed forces are already present in North Waziristan. The target of such an operation in North Waziristan would be the most violent factions within the so-called Pakistani Taliban. Their leader, Hakimullah Mahsud, is believed to be increasingly isolated after executing a prominent former Pakistani official over the objections of senior militant leaders.

 

Although, Hakimullah Mahsud has been linked to attacks in tribal areas and Afghanistan, his main focus appears to be in plotting carnage elsewhere in Pakistan. And that makes him a prime target for the Army. Washington has long urged the Pakistanis to launch an operation in North Waziristan, a region overrun by an assortment of militant groups, including al-Qaeda. Most US drone strikes in Pakistan take place in North Waziristan.

 

The sources pointed out that more than 30,000 soldiers are already present in North Waziristan, and some analysts say the Pakistan Army could quickly redeploy to the area. The Army has 140,000 soldiers in the tribal region that borders Afghanistan.

 

The fissures among the militants were laid bare in February, when Mahsud released a gruesome video that confirmed the killing of former Pakistani Brigadier Sultan Amir Tarar. Mahsud’s group had held Imam for 10 months. The killing confounded Pakistani military officials. The divisions that Imam’s death revealed among the militant groups could provide an opportunity for the Army to hit hard at insurgents in the North Waziristan town of Mir Ali, where Mahsud set up bases after fleeing last year’s military assault on his headquarters in neighbouring South Waziristan. Mir Ali is about 32 kilometres from the town of Miramshah, where the Haqqanis are based.

 

In recent years, the United States has identified Mir Ali as the site of a reconstituted al-Qaeda. Also on the run in Mir Ali is Ilyas Kashmiri, a confidante of Mahsud’s. The United States this month put a $5 million bounty on Kashmiri’s head.

 

Incidentally, DG ISPR and spokesperson for the PAF were not available to offer comment on the development. The sources said that the PAF has put in place all precautionary measures to thwart any retaliatory action from North Waziristani elements. The PAF has already started reducing unnecessary non-operational staff at its bases considered possible target of retaliatory attacks by the militants, the sources said.

 

The sources, on the other hand, had insisted that Pakistani leadership, civilian and military, had in unison given the undertaking to operate against the militants in North Waziristan in barter for the clean chit Clinton had granted to them in Osama bin Laden’s case.

 

It is also pertinent to note here that American drones have been focusing at targets in North Waziristan during past many months despite protests registered by Chief of Army Staff (COAS) Ashfaq Parvez Kayani. According to sources, the civilian as well as military leadership believes that surgical strikes in North Waziristan would possibly minimise the drone attacks that fuel anti-American sentiments across the country.