The Pakistani Army and the Taliban clashed at a military base in North Waziristan as the government considers launching an operation in the tribal areas.
The fighting in Ramzak, a military garrison in a town that borders North and South Waziristan, broke out after the Taliban launched more than 110 rockets and mortars at the base. The Frontier Corps returned fire with artillery and claimed to have killed between 12 and 15 Taliban fighters and destroyed two Taliban bunkers. Two Frontier Corps troops were killed in the attacks.
The Taliban disputed the claim and said only three of its fighters were killed in the attack. According to Azam Tariq, the spokesman for the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan, the assault force also captured a large quantity of weapons from the military.
The fighting is the second major encounter between the Taliban and the military in Ramzak over the past week. On Sept. 22, the Taliban claimed to have killed 45 Pakistani soldiers after more than 600 Taliban fighters assaulted two security checkpoints in Ramzak. The Pakistani military claimed eight Taliban fighters were killed during the assault but did not report its own casualties.
Also in North Waziristan, a large explosion was reported in the village of Essori near Mir Ali. A witness claimed the explosion was the result of a US airstrike, however no casualties have been reported.
The fighting in North Waziristan coincides with the Taliban’s launch of a terror offensive against tribal leaders in the neighboring district of Bannu. Since Sept. 24, the Taliban have killed two senior tribal leaders there, one in an ambush and another in a suicide attack; they also destroyed a police station in a suicide attack on Sept. 26.
While the government and Taliban forces are battling in North Waziristan, civilians are reported to be fleeing neighboring South Waziristan. According to reports, both the Taliban and the military have asked the civilians to leave the Makeen and Ladha regions inhabited by the Mehsud tribe. The Mehsuds provide the leadership for the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan.
The exodus may have been prompted by statements made by Rehman Malik, Pakistan’s interior minister. Over the weekend Malik said the government is considering launching an operation to take on the Taliban in Waziristan.
“Whether we really need a real good big operation like Swat in North Waziristan, in South Waziristan, we are considering it and at the appropriate time we are going to take action.” Malik said, according to Reuters.
But Malik was clear that the Mehsud branch of the Taliban would be the focus, not the other powerful Taliban groups such as the Haqqani family, or the groups commanded by Hafiz Gul Bahadar and Mullah Nazir.
“We are very much doing our targeted action on Baitullah Mehsud’s group,” Malik said, referring to the former leader of the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan who was killed in a US airstrike in early August. The group is now led by Hakeemullah Mehsud, while Waliur Rehman Mehsud leads the Taliban in South Waziristan.
The last operation in South Waziristan was launched in mid-June and fizzled out after the US airstrike killed Baitullah Mehsud, the former leader of the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan. The military initially claimed it was moving into South Waziristan in force, but after meeting stiff resistance, the plan was changed to blockading the region and hitting the Taliban with air and artillery strikes.
The military has said it has no intentions of conducting operations in North Waziristan, and also said an operation in South Waziristan likely wouldn’t begin until next spring.
Background on recent fighting in North and South Waziristan
The Pakistani military has avoided directly confronting the Taliban in North and South Waziristan after suffering a string of humiliating defeats there between 2004 and 2008. The most recent operations in Waziristan resulted in peace agreements that have ceded control of the region to the Taliban.
The last time the Pakistani military took on the Taliban in North Waziristan was in October 2007. The Pakistani military and the Taliban fought pitched battles after the military launched artillery barrages and helicopter and attack aircraft assaults against Taliban-controlled villages in North Waziristan.
The Taliban responded by setting up complex ambushes, including surface-to-air missile traps, a senior US military intelligence official told The Long War Journal. Several Pakistani Army helicopters were said to have been shot down during the fighting. The Pakistani military claimed that 120 Taliban and 45 soldiers were killed in the fighting, but independent reports put the number of soldiers killed much higher.
At the end of October 2007, the government pushed for a peace deal, and the fighting waned. The Taliban, led by the Haqqani Network and Hafiz Gul Bahadar, remained entrenched in the region. In February 2008, an official peace agreement was signed.
The last major operation against the Taliban in South Waziristan took place in late January 2008. The military launched an offensive with the declared aim of dislodging Baitullah Mehsud’s forces from entrenched positions. Prior to the military’s offensive, the Taliban overran two military forts and conducted numerous attacks against Pakistani forces. More than a dozen of Pakistan’s elite counterterrorism commandos were killed in a single engagement.
The military claimed to have ejected the Taliban from strongholds in Kotkai and Jandola, however, and said it killed Qari Hussain. But Hussain later mocked the government during a press conference in May 2008.
Just 11 days after the fighting in South Waziristan had begun, the military sued for peace. The Taliban retook control of Jandola four months later, after murdering dozens from a rival tribe while the military looked on. The military has since abandoned several forts in South Waziristan and has kept activity there to a minimum.
Taliban forces belonging to Hakeemullah Mehsud, the new leader of the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan; Mullah Nazir; Hafiz Gul Bahadar; and the Haqqanis, led by Jalaluddin’s son Sirajuddin; have only grown stronger since defeating the Pakistani military during engagements in 2007 and 2008. Tens of thousands of fighters are under the collective command of these leaders.
Map of the Ramzak/Makeen region: