Moun­tains are clear of Is­lamist mil­i­tants, Pak­istani army says

The Washington Post Sunday - - THE WORLD - BY TIM CRAIG tim.craig@wash­ Haq Nawaz Khan in Peshawar con­trib­uted to this re­port.

IS­LAM­ABAD, PAK­ISTAN — Pak­istan’s mil­i­tary says it achieved a ma­jor strate­gic vic­tory over Is­lamist mil­i­tants hid­ing in the Shawal Val­ley, a thickly forested area bor­der­ing Afghanistan thought to be among the last few refuges here for al-Qaeda and the Pak­istani Tal­iban.

Pak­istan’s army chief, Gen. Ra­heel Sharif, vis­ited the area on Fri­day to con­grat­u­late troops for clear­ing “all peaks” that sur­round the val­ley. Now, Sharif said, the army will be­gin a fi­nal as­sault on the lower el­e­va­tions.

“We will not stop un­less we achieve our end ob­jec­tive of a terror-free Pak­istan,” Sharif said in a state­ment.

Af­ter years of blood­shed from ter­ror­ist at­tacks, the Pak­istani mil­i­tary launched its of­fen­sive in the coun­try’s north­west­ern tribal ar­eas in June of last year. Since then, army lead­ers say they have driven mil­i­tants from much of North Waziris­tan, which had been a safe haven for ter­ror­ist groups that car­ried out at­tacks both in Pak­istan and Afghanistan.

Pak­istan’s in­te­rior min­is­ter, Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, told the coun­try’s Supreme Court on Satur­day that 20,000 mil­i­tants had been killed or wounded since the op­er­a­tion be­gan. An ad­di­tional 2,500 have been ar­rested, he said.

Last month, how­ever, Pak­istan’s mil­i­tary is­sued a state­ment say­ing it had killed just 2,763 ter­ror­ists over the past year.

Pak­istan re­stricts media ac­cess to the tribal ar­eas, which makes it dif­fi­cult for in­de­pen­dent observers to as­sess se­cu­rity of­fi­cials’ claims.

But Pak­istan has ex­pe­ri­enced a sharp de­cline in civil­ian ca­su­al­ties from ter­ror­ist at­tacks so far this year.

Many of the mil­i­tants from North Waziris­tan fled across the bor­der into Afghanistan, where vi­o­lence has been in­creas­ing. Oth­ers are hid­ing along the Pak­istan-Afghanistan bor­der, of­fi­cials said.

The Shawal Val­ley strad­dles both North and South Waziris­tan, but it also in­cludes a net­work of trails and tun­nels to Afghanistan.

U.S. drone strikes fre­quently tar­get the area. In Jan­uary, a U.S. drone strike mis­tak­enly killed two for­eign­ers who had been kid­napped by al-Qaeda, in­clud­ing Amer­i­can War­ren Weinstein.

Weinstein, 73, had been held since 2011 af­ter be­ing kid­napped in La­hore, Pak­istan, while work­ing as a con­trac­tor for the U.S. Agency for In­ter­na­tional De­vel­op­ment. An Ital­ian aid worker, Gio­vanni Lo Porto, was also killed in that strike.

Zahid Hus­sain, an Is­lam­abad­based mil­i­tary an­a­lyst, said the Pak­istani army is try­ing to com­plete its of­fen­sive in the Shawal Val­ley be­fore snow be­gins fall­ing there in Septem­ber.

“This is go­ing to be the most crit­i­cal phase of the North Waziris­tan op­er­a­tion,” said Hus­sain, who has made sev­eral vis­its to the area. “It’s a very, very treach­er­ous, moun­tain­ous area, and thickly forested, so there is a rea­son why the army has left it for the end.”

The op­er­a­tion in Shawal Val­ley is ac­cel­er­at­ing just days af­ter the Pak­istani army con­cluded its of­fen­sive in another bor­der area that was also a refuge for Is­lamist mil­i­tants.

Ac­cord­ing to Pak­istan’s Dawn news­pa­per, that op­er­a­tion in the Ti­rah Val­ley in Khy­ber Agency was suc­cess­ful in “ef­fec­tively flush­ing out mil­i­tants and block­ing their cross­ing points on borders with Afghanistan.”

In an in­ter­view with The Washington Post, one mil­i­tary of­fi­cial cau­tioned that mil­i­tants can still be found in the most rugged, moun­tain­ous ar­eas of the Ti­rah Val­ley. Mil­i­tary lead­ers are de­bat­ing whether to con­front those mil­i­tants with ground forces or with more airstrikes, said the of­fi­cial, who spoke anony­mously be­cause he was not au­tho­rized to speak to the media.

In ei­ther case, Dawn re­ported that those ar­eas will be­come un­in­hab­it­able once win­ter sets in. But some lo­cal res­i­dents re­main skep­ti­cal.

“Noth­ing has been achieved from these oper­a­tions ex­cept dis­plac­ing hun­dreds of tribes­men,” said Zar Ali Khan Afridi, a lo­cal po­lit­i­cal ac­tivist in Khy­ber Agency. “The peo­ple are re­ly­ing on the gov­ern­ment’s claims, but the mil­i­tary can’t even re­veal one name” of a high-pro­file mil­i­tant who has been killed.

Nasir Khan, a se­nior gov­ern­ment of­fi­cial in Khy­ber Agency, coun­ters that about 100 Tal­iban and al-Qaeda mil­i­tants and com­man­ders have been killed there in re­cent weeks. For­mer Pak­istani mil­i­tary lead­ers say iden­ti­fy­ing those killed in the oper­a­tions could spur re­tal­ia­tory at­tacks by sleeper cells in Pak­istani cities.

Even when the mil­i­tary op­er­a­tion of­fi­cially ends, how­ever, Hus­sain and other an­a­lysts say they still are not sure whether Pak­istan has an ef­fec­tive strat­egy for mak­ing sure mil­i­tants do not even­tu­ally re­turn to the his­tor­i­cally law­less tribal ar­eas.

“It’s still an un­fin­ished job,” Hus­sain said. “Yes, they can con­trol an area, but that con­trol will re­main ten­ta­tive if we do not main­tain a clear strat­egy for fight­ing ter­ror­ism and mil­i­tancy.”

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