Fighting has broken out in South Waziristan after the Taliban attacked a paramilitary camp and outposts in the lawless tribal agency.
The clashes broke out after a Taliban force attacked a camp and checkpoints run by the paramilitary Frontier Corps in the town of Spinkai Raghzai. Reports of casualties range from 25 to 50 Taliban, and seven Frontier Corps were killed in the fighting.
The military reported in a press release that 15 Taliban fighters and three troops were killed in the attack on the encampment. “The attack was repulsed successfully, inflicting heavy casualties on militants,” the military said.
Unnamed intelligence sources said 40 Taliban fighters were killed during the battle. “Militants came in force and attacked a paramilitary camp and fighting lasted for eight hours,” an official told Reuters. “At least 40 militants were killed while four soldiers died.”
Ten more Taliban fighters and four more soldiers, including an officer, were killed after a military convoy was ambushed in the region, the Pakistan military reported.
Spinkai is located in the tribal regions run by Baitullah Mehsud, the leader of the Pakistani Taliban movement. Qari Hussain Mehsud, Baitullah’s deputy and cousin, runs suicide training camps for children in Spinkai. The military destroyed one of these camps during a brief operation in January 2008 but Qari reopened the camp months later.
A new front?
Pakistani officials are saying an operation has been launched against the Taliban in South Waziristan, but initial reports indicate the military is reacting to the Taliban attacks.
Rumors of an operation in South Waziristan took hold after President Asif Ali Zardari said the military was prepared to attack Baitullah’s forces in South Waziristan during a visit to the US in mid-May. Zardari later claimed he was misquoted and said no operation was on the horizon.
The Taliban responded to Zardari’s threat by demanding that the military withdraw from outposts in Wana, Tanai, and Shakai, and vacate the brigade headquarters in Zari Noor. The Taliban also demanded the military stop establishing checkpoints along the roads, minimize military traffic, and end the Predator strikes targeting Taliban and al Qaeda leaders. The Taliban gave the military until May 25 to respond “or face consequences,” according to Dawn.
The report of a planned invasion of Waziristan sparked panic among the local tribesmen. Thousands of people left their homes in regions of South Waziristan that are known to be strongholds run by Baitullah. A tribal jirga also opened negotiations with both the Taliban and the South Waziristan political administration in an effort to ease the tensions.
Baitullah has ordered his fighters to prepare for a Pakistani Army military offensive by mining the region in an effort to halt the movement of military forces into the region. He reportedly ordered Asmatullah Muawiya and Qari Zafar to lead the effort.
Qari Mohammad Zafar, a leader of the Laskhar-e-Jhangvi who is thought to be behind the Marriott bombings. Photo from AKI
Qari Zafar (or Qari Mohammad Zafar) is a leader of the Laskhar-e-Jhangvi who is suspected of being one of the operational commanders behind the deadly September 2008 bombing of the Islamabad Marriott. The attack killed more than 50 Pakistanis and foreigners and wounded more than 270, and heavily damaged the hotel [see LWJ report, Al Qaeda-linked suspects emerge in Islamabad Marriott attacks]. Laskhar-e-Jhangvi, Jaish-e-Mohammed, and other Punjabi and Kashmiri terror groups have established bases in Waziristan and have closely aligned with the Taliban and al Qaeda.
The military has conducted several attacks against the Taliban since the fighting broke out in Swat, Dir, Buner, and Shangla in later April. The attacks have been defensive in nature; the military has been responding to Taliban attacks on convoys and suicide strikes on military outposts and personnel.
The Taliban recently raised the stakes by taking credit for the deadly military and suicide assault on a police and an intelligence headquarters in the eastern city of Lahore. Twenty-three people, including police and officials from the Inter-Service Intelligence agency, were killed after an assault team opened fire on security personnel and stormed the ISI headquarters, while a truck was detonated in front of the police headquarters, leveling the building.
Hakeemullah Mehsud, Baitullah’s other senior deputy, claimed credit for the assault and vowed the Taliban would strike in Pakistan’s major cities. “Residents should leave the cities of Islamabad, Rawalpindi, Lahore, and Multan,” he said, warning that government institutions will be targeted.
Background on recent fighting in North and South Waziristan
The Pakistani military has avoided targeting 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 Family 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, and said it killed Qari Hussain.
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 Baitullah, Mullah Nazir, Hafiz Gul Bahadar, and the Haqqanis, led by Siraj, 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 the leaders. And a recent alliance between three of these commanders has unified the Waziristan Taliban.
Earlier this year, Baitullah, Nazir, and Bahadar put aside tribal differences and created the Council of United Mujahideen. The Taliban leaders “united according to the wishes of Mujahideen leaders like Mullah Muhammad Omar and Sheikh Osama bin Laden,” stated a pamphlet released by the group announcing its formation. The new Taliban alliance said it openly supports Omar and bin Laden in their war against the US, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.
The four Taliban leaders openly support al Qaeda and host training camps for the terror groups as well as for the numerous Pakistani jihadi groups. The leaders provide fighters to serve in the Lashkar al Zil, al Qaeda’s paramilitary organization that operates along the Afghan and Pakistani border areas.
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