Fighting intensifies in northwestern Taliban strongholds
Fighting has intensified in a region in northwestern Pakistan where the Taliban and al Qaeda fighters dodging the South Waziristan operation have regrouped.
Limited military operations, consisting largely of air and artillery strikes backed by the paramilitary Frontier Corps, are concentrating on Taliban strongholds in a region that borders the Arakzai, Kurram, and Khyber tribal agencies.
Meanwhile, the Taliban are continuing their campaign against pro-government tribal leaders. One leader was assassinated in Bajaur and another was kidnapped in Mohmand.
In recent days, the Kurram Militia, a unit assigned to the paramilitary Frontier Corps, has conducted operations to secure the towns of Badama and Taindo, and has taken control of a Taliban training camp in the Shaho region. The military also said it cut off routes to and from the neighboring tribal agency of Arakzai, another Taliban stronghold, to prevent the Taliban from fleeing or reinforcing, Dawn reported.
The Kurram Militia launched the operation after a military convoy was ambushed by the Taliban in the Shaho region. The military claimed to have captured "a number of local and foreign militants" in the counterattack. The Shaho camp is said to be operated by Taliban leader Hakeemullah Mehsud and was used to train fighters from South Waziristan and elsewhere.
"This was major centre comprising several hideouts and tunnels which were completely destroyed," Colonel Touseef Akhtar of the Kurram Militia told reporters.
Kurram is known to be used by the Afghan Taliban to train fighters for operations against NATO and Afghan forces. On March 12, 2009, the US killed 14 Taliban and al Qaeda fighters in an airstrike on a Taliban compound and training camp in the Barjo region in Kurram.
Taliban fighters, along with al Qaeda and Central Asian fighters, have been resettling in Kurram while the military is conducting operations in the Mehsud tribal areas in South Waziristan. Local Taliban leaders and tribal elders are setting aside homes for the terrorists. "The newcomers have established hide-outs in the foothills and mountains skirting the villages, and have been seen digging trenches in mountainsides," the Los Angeles Times reported.
"From their faces we can see they are foreigners," Jaleel Rahman, a resident of central Kurram told the Los Angeles Times. "Sometimes they speak in Arabic, sometimes in English. Their leaders stay at the houses of influential people in our area. And we can't do anything about it."
"They are in the hundreds here," Sher Muhammad, a tribesman in central Kurram said. "They tell us to do what they do. And whatever they like, they get by force."
"They come to our houses and terrorize us," said Fareed Ullah, a student in Weedara. "They are kidnapping our elders and stealing our cars. We have no way of rising up against them, and there's no government here to help us. ... Kurram is in trouble because of them."
In Arakzai, the military is continuing to hit the Taliban with air and artillery strikes. Five Taliban fighters were killed in the latest airstrikes on Taliban "hideouts" in the Chappar Ferozekhel region.
On Nov. 25, the military reported that 10 Taliban fighters were killed in airstrikes in the Shahu Khel regions in Arakzai and neighboring Hangu. The military has stepped up operations in the region and claims to have secured Shahu Khel in Arakzai.
Taliban, al Qaeda, and Central Asian fighters have been flocking to Arakzai as well to escape the South Waziristan operation. Taliban commanders in Arakzai admit they've "set aside empty houses for fellow militants and their families arriving from South Waziristan," the Los Angeles Times reported.
"They accompany us wherever we go on patrol," local Taliban commander Maulana Zainul Abideen said. "They contacted our elders, and our elders allowed them to come here."
According to Mufti Khursheed, another local commander, the Taliban could not "carry out any activity without us, would have to patrol with us and would join us wherever we need them. They will not take any step without our permission."
The Frontier Corps also claimed that 15 pro-Taliban extremists fighters from the Lashkar-e-Islam were killed in helicopter strikes in the Landi Kotal region. The military claims to be in control of the towns of Mamary, Shaheeda Killi, and Meri Khel, and to have seized a massive weapons depot.
Three days ago, the military restarted operations against the Lashkar-e-Islam in the Bara and Landi Kotal regions in an attempt to halt the suicide and terror attacks on the neighboring city of Peshawar.
Taliban fighters from South Waziristan have also settled in Jamrud, Landi Kotal, and in the Tirah Valley, and have targeted Peshawar and NATO's supply lines to Afghanistan.
On several occasions since 2008, the military has claimed that Khyber has been cleared of the Lashkar-e-Islam and the Taliban. Four previous military offensives have failed to dislodge the terror groups. The latest offensive appears to be similarily limited in size and scope, and seems to be punitive in nature. Only 200 troops are operating in the Landi Kotal region, far to few to secure the region.
Bajaur and Mohmand
While operations are underway in Kurram, Khyber, and Arakzai, the Taliban continue to target pro-government tribal leaders.
In Bajaur, the Taliban assassinated Shahpoor Khan, who was described as a "a key ally of Pakistan's embattled authorities" in the tribal agency. Khan was killed in an IED attack. He is the third senior anti-Taliban tribal leader killed in Bajaur since Oct. 3. The Taliban also killed Khan's predecessor last year in a suicide attack.
In Mohmand, the Taliban attacked the home of Malik Amir Said, the leader of a local "peace committee," and kidnapped him. Said's son was killed during the attack.
In March of this year, the military claimed the Taliban were defeated and driven from Bajaur and Mohmand after operations ended in both tribal agencies.
The Taliban have responded viciously to efforts by tribal leaders to oppose the spread of extremism in the tribal areas. Tribal opposition has been violently attacked and defeated in Bannu, Peshawar, Arakzai, Khyber, North and South Waziristan, and previously in Swat and Dir. Suicide bombers have struck at tribal meetings held at mosques, schools, hotels, and homes.
For more information on the Taliban's regrouping in Kurram, Arakzai, Khyber, and North and South Waziristan, see LWJ report, "Taliban escape South Waziristan operation."