MAMAD GAT, Pakistan — A top Pakistani commander said Wednesday the army intends to start operations against militants in a strategic tribal region that juts deep into Afghanistan, part of a rolling campaign to elimate insurgents on its side of the border.
But Lt. Gen. Asif Yasin Malik said the force had no immediate plan to attack the neighbouring militant haven of North Waziristan, an al-Qaida stronghold from where many of the deadliest attacks against U.S. troops in Afghanistan are organized and launched.
The United States has been pressing Pakistan’s army to move into the region, which — unlike others close to the frontier — has not seen offensives over the last four years. By not going into North Waziristan, however, the military is sending a message that runs counter to expectations that the U.S. has gained fresh leverage after killing Osama bin Laden deep inside the country.
Malik briefed reporters who were by the army to Mohmand, close to the Afghanistan border. The trip was intended to showcase army success against militants in that region. The area and six other frontier regions are normally closed to journalists.
Commanders said Mohmand was now 80 per cent cleared of insurgents after an operation that began in January. Operations were continuing in areas close to the frontier, and the briefing room was shaken several times as artillery shells were launched from the base.
Malik, who oversees military operations in the tribal areas and other parts of the northwest bordering Afghanistan, said he met last month with religious and community leaders in the Kurram agency who asked for a military operation against militants.
Kurram has seen violence between Shiite and Sunni Muslims for years, and is also home to insurgents.
According to some accounts, the Haqqani network, a faction of the Agfghan Taliban, was shifting fighters there from North Waziristan to give them a new route to stage attacks in Afghanistan. Violence has continued despite a recent peace deal between the two sects, and Malik said unrest was being formented by outside militants who benefited from the instability.
“There is some trouble brewing up in Kurram,” said Malik. “We intend to sort them out.”
He said operations would be launched there with the government’s backing, but declined to give any more operational details.
Militant groups based in the northwest have launched hundreds of attacks inside Pakistan in recent years, and the army has moved aggressively to retake areas from them. But, to the annoyance of the United States, Pakistan has not aggressively persued militants that focus on Afghanistan, not Pakistani forces.
North Waziristan is now seen as the main militant sanctuary in the northwest. As well as the Haqqani network, it is also home to al-Qaida and Pakistani Taliban fighters. The United States regularly strikes targets there with drone-fired missiles.
Bin Laden’s killing in an army town led to accusations that Pakistan security forces were either hiding him or were incompetent. Since the raid, Washington has been increasing pressure on Islamabad to take more action against extremists.
An offensive in North Waziristan would undoubtedly earn Islamabad much needed goodwill in Washington. This week a local newspaper reported that the army had decided to launch an offensive. Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. military Joint Chiefs of Staff, was asked about the report and said it was an encouraging sign.
But Malik dismissed the reports as “media hype” and insisted the army’s posture was unchanged.
“There is no change in North Waziristan in past months and weeks,” Malik said. “We will undertake an operation when we want to, when it’s in the national interest.”
Deploying the same arguments used by the army for the past 18 months, he said the force was too busy carrying out operations elsewhere in the northwest to take on North Waziristan. He didn’t rule it out, however, saying “maybe ultimately we go to North Waziristan, why not?”