The last battleground

November 2, 2014

Stretching the offensive to Shawal means the military is seriously ready to take on all the militants

The last battleground

Clearing the major population centres of North Waziristan after five months of active engagement, Pakistan military is now planning to further stretch the offensive and chase the militants in the treacherous mountains of Shawal where most of the militants are said to have gathered fleeing the towns along River Tochi.

Featuring snow capped mountains, deep valleys and impenetrable forests and spread out in the North and South Waziristan agencies and even Afghanistan, Shawal valley has been the last resort for militants whether fleeing the Rah-i-Nijat operation launched in 2009 in South Waziristan or Zarb-e-Azb in North Waziristan launched on June 15, 2014.

Majority of Pakistanis perceive Zarb-e-Azb operation as "national resistance" or "battle of national survival" against terrorism fought in the mountains of North Waziristan -- thought of the epicentre of international terrorism. It is said to be the headquarter for almost all militants networks of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), al-Qaeda, Haqqanis, Uzbeks, Chechens and Uighur terrorists.

According to the military accounts -- the only available source of information -- during the five months air and grounds offensives, security forces have cleared more than 80 per cent of North Waziristan; resulting in the killing of some 1000 hardcore terrorists, destroying scores of IED factories, tons of explosives and weapons’ depots, dismantling well-established ‘command and control’ systems and jihadi infrastructure built over decades here. The offensives dislocated over one million tribesmen, women and children to district Bannu and other adjoining areas.

However, what the military sources claim, of reclaiming 80 per cent territory from militants’ occupation without killing or arresting a high profile terrorist leader, is not without reservations. "Clearing 80 per cent [North Waziristan] means the remaining 20 per cent is Shawal region that needs to be washed down," says defence analyst Brig (Retd) Said Nazeer Mohmand.

The region is very inhospitable for troops to move and operate in, with thick forests and foliaged valleys covered with snow in most parts of the year especially in winter.

"I see the game is not finished yet…..and elimination of militants is not an option but dislocation might be," says the former military officer alluding to the recently signed Bilateral Security Agreement between Afghanistan and US, allowing international forces to stay in Afghanistan beyond December 2014.

Pushing and holding up militants in the lush green lofty foliaged mountains of Shawal is a better strategy instead of Kurram and Tirah where some reports say militants affiliated to Haqqani network have escaped.

North Waziristan operation, according to military accounts, is the "biggest and most well-coordinated operation" ever conducted against terrorists. ISPR chief Gen Asim Bajwa has been quoted in media as saying: "We have surrounded the entire agency and sealed the 180km border with Afghanistan, as well as boundary with South Waziristan, making it impossible for terrorists to escape."

So it is possible a few of militants have taken refuge on the Afghan side of the border, but most of them and their leadership are still in the targeted area. Now after clearing the major population towns of Mirali, Miramshah, Boya, Deegan, Hasokhel, Mosakay and areas of Dathakhel, forces are now planning to chase militants affiliated with TTP, al-Qaeda, Uzbeks, Tajiks, Chinese and Arabs in the mountains of Shawal where most of them have taken refuge.

Local militant groups including the influential Sadiq Noor group, Aryana group, Malavi Said Khan and Gud Abdur Rehman groups are said to have gathered in the thickly foliaged valleys. Going to the Shawal valley is not difficult for the forces. "For military going to Shawal valley is not a problem but eliminating militants and staying will definitely be," says Brig Nazeer.

"If military goes to Shawal, militants will go further up into the mountains or disperse in the dense forests putting no resistance or just imposing certain caution by spraying IEDs as they did in parts of North Waziristan," says Nazeer.

The region is very inhospitable for troops to move and operate in, with thick forests and foliaged valleys covered with snow in most parts of the year especially in winter.

"The local and foreign militants who are living in this region are acclimatised to the terrain and will make it very tough for the military to catch or kill them," says Safdar Dawar, a senior journalist from Miramshah.

Stretching the offensive to Shawal means the military is seriously ready to take on all the militants including TTP, al-Qaeda, Haqqanis, Uzbeks, Uighurs and dozens of small local groups, as all are holed up in Shawal mountains…. "A task that seems highly difficult and dangerous, if not impossible," says Dawar.

The region is sparsely populated by Wazir tribes across the border and till 2004 it was completely out of the administrative zone and ungoverned. After military operations in Wana, Azam Warsak, Shakai and Makeen areas of South Waziristan in 2004, some check posts were established in the low lying areas. But these check posts were vacated when Operation Zarb-e-Azb was launched due to fear of guerilla attacks. In winter the valley is completely emptied and people shift to other warm areas.

There are also reports the valley has a well established jihadi infrastructure inherited from the days of Afghan-Soviet war. "Yes there are long tunnels, underground facilities dug during the Afghan war for securing mujahideen from air attacks," says Dilawar Wazir, another local journalist.

Besides the terrain and harsh weather conditions, the role of Afghan government is another very important factor in case of any engagement against the militants in Shawal: large parts of the region are located in Afghanistan and the region contains no marked signs separating Pakistani region from the Afghan one.

Even if the Afghan government wants to extend support to Pakistan forces or play as an anvil to the fleeing militants, it can’t in the prevailing situation, when international forces are packing up handing over all security affairs to the Afghan forces by December 14.

So in the wake of no active support from Afghanistan, it will be easier for militants who have crossed to Afghanistan to re-launch guerilla attacks on Pakistani forces with the support of Afghan backers.

Some experts are more skeptical saying that even if Afghan government extends military support to Pakistan, the elimination of militants is a hard task in Shawal. "Shawal is as inaccessible from the Afghan side as it is from Pakistan and short of helicopters services, transport and supply is almost not possible," says Safdar Dawar.

The better option is to use the Pakistan Air Force that has the capability of targeting with precision the hideouts of militants anywhere in the mountains and valleys. "We have the capability to monitor the militants’ activities from 30,000 feet up in the sky and hit any target with laser-guided missiles, with precision and less collateral damage," says Brig Nazeer.

The last battleground