Pakistan's military says it has begun a ground offensive against terrorist hideouts in North Waziristan, following two weeks of aerial bombing and evacuation of civilians from the region. The northwestern tribal territory bordering Afghanistan has long been a source of domestic and international terrorist activities.
After evacuation of “all civilian population,” the army says its troops and commandos have started a “house-to-house search” in and around Miranshah, the administrative center of North Waziristan.
The army says the initial ground offensive has killed 15 “terrorists” and found tunnels and bomb-making factories.
Islamabad began the counterterrorism operation on June 15 by bombing suspected targets from the air. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif ordered the action after peace talks with the Pakistani Taliban collapsed because of repeated terrorist attacks.
Former Pakistan Army spokesman, retired general Athar Abbas, explains the challenges of the military action in North Waziristan.
“In North Waziristan, it is treacherous, high mountains, caves, and small pockets of urban centers. So, it will be more difficult as compared to other areas. But then, the army has operated in this area before also and on-and-off they have been carrying out targeted operations, small raids and ambushes et cetera. But now the level or scale of operation is quite large,” says Abbas.
North Waziristan is one of seven tribal districts along Pakistan’s northwestern border with Afghanistan. While the military has conducted repeated counter-militancy operations in the other areas, it had not undertaken a full-scale offensive until now, despite pressure from the United States and other Western allies.
Officials do not rule out the possibility of militant attacks elsewhere in Pakistan in reaction to the army operation. Abbas says the operation is significant in terms of restricting the ability of militants to launch major anti-state attacks.
“One does not expect that all of them will surrender or get killed. Many of them always will have the opportunity to escape because they belong to the area and they know the routes in, routes out. But the fact is that if you deny a certain group or a collective body their own stronghold, their own area, where they draw the main strength from, then I think half of the battle is won,” says Abbas.
The military says it has killed nearly 400 militants since the offensive began two weeks ago and has confirmed the deaths of 17 soldiers.
The extent of civilian casualties is not known, and it is not possible to verify official accounts of the fighting because the Waziristan region has been completely sealed.
The fighting has forced nearly half-a-million civilians, mostly women and children to flee the Waziristan agency, prompting a major humanitarian crisis for Pakistani authorities.
The internally displaced population has ended up in areas around the northwestern town of Bannu where authorities and aid groups are scaling up efforts to deliver urgent humanitarian assistance to victim families.