For the second time this year, the Pakistani military has begun another massive foray into the Waziristan tribal belt on Afghanistan’s southeastern border to capture elusive pro-al Qaeda foreign militants sheltered by the tribesmen. After its humiliating failure in March during a similar operation, the current operation that began on June 9 appears to have minimal successes – that is, if army-controlled media reports are to be believed. But the end result appears to be the same. So far, army reports of foreign militants, dead or captured, are not being substantiated by display of corpses or presentation of prisoners to the local and foreign media in Pakistan.
Most of the military action is concentrated in the Shakai valley, some 15 miles north of Wana, the main town in the South Waziristan tribal agency. After several jirgas or meetings with elders of the Ahmadzai clan of the Wazir tribe, and fruitless searches by volunteer lashkars or tribal levies for unregistered foreign militants in the region, the government imposed an economic blockade on the agency. Tribal leaders were also arrested for not cooperating with authorities. Finally, the military responded with force on June 9 in retaliation for an attack on a Frontier Corps paramilitary outpost in the region. On June 11, Pakistani air force jets and helicopter gunships began bombing suspected hideouts of the militants in the Shakai Mountains.
Helicopters with commandos also landed near the bombed houses of suspected militants. A military spokesman later told a press conference in the Pakistani capital Islamabad that 35 militants had been killed for the loss of 15 Pakistani soldiers and paramilitary scouts. The spokesman, Major General Shaukat Sultan, claimed that bodies of “six foreigners” were retrieved by troops and brought to Wana. (The News, Wana, June 12; Dawn, Wana, June 12).
On the other side of the border, in the Afghan capital Kabul, U.S. military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Tucker Mansager told the local press that U.S. forces were in “very close contact” with their Pakistani counterparts and were sharing information. He said U.S. forces on their side of the border were maintaining “a very robust presence” to thwart any crossing over of militants from Waziristan. However, Mansager added that as of June 12 there was “no particular increase” in movement across the border. Finally, on June 14, the Pakistani military halted its air and ground offensive in Shakai as both sides agreed once again to restart a process of negotiations to implement the registration of “foreigners” in the region. A jirga of elders from the Ahmadzai clan of the Wazirs in Azam Warsak gave consent to a 36-member supervisory committee to engage in talks aimed at finding a peaceful solution to the problem of unregistered “foreign” militants living among them.
Army sources said the Shakai operation killed 74 people – 55 militants and 19 soldiers. However, local tribesmen are convinced that the number of soldiers killed was higher than the official figure. Once again, Pakistani army spokesman Major General Shaukat Sultan maintained that some of the militants were “foreigners,” but he declined to reveal their nationalities. He said the military was now in total control of Shakai valley and that the “foreign militants” there have either been killed or dispersed. But he did not know where the rest of the militants could have fled. However, local residents said the militants might have escaped either to Kaniguram or Makin to the northeast of Shakai — an area peopled by the Mahsuds, traditional rivals of the Wazirs. Nevertheless, hostilities have continued, and more ominously, in the North Waziristan tribal agency — homeland of even more Wazirs. Three paramilitary soldiers were killed and three others wounded when their vehicle hit a roadside bomb near Miranshah, the main town in the North Wazirstan tribal agency. A remote-control device was used to explode the bomb. (The News, Peshawar June 15; Dawn, Peshawar, June 14).
What remains to be seen in the coming weeks is whether the Pakistani military has weakened the resolve of the militants to fight again or whether there might be a wider conflagration next time, involving not only the clans of the Wazirs but also the Mahsuds. Already there have been reports of casualties in Mahsud villages as the military bombed the area and used Mahsud territory to fight the Wazirs in Shakai. So far, the powerful Mahsuds have been on the side of the government. But the history of the tribal borderland has shown that even rival tribes unite against a common enemy, as the Wazirs and Mahsuds did against British colonials in the early 1900s.
In the meantime, the Pakistani military seems to have “forgotten” the original mastermind of the militancy in the area — former Taliban commander Nek Mohammed, who negotiated with government authorities after the first military offensive in March that claimed the lives of 120 people, including 50 soldiers. Mohammed, a tribal militant of the Ahmadzai clan of the Wazirs, won amnesty from the government along with four other tribal comrades. London’s Daily Telegraph on June 5 ran a story on Mohammed aptly titled: “The Pathan ‘Robin Hood’ thumbs his nose at Islamabad.”