Baitullah Mehsud from a recent Taliban video.
A provincial governor said the military will launch a “comprehensive and decisive operation” in South Waziristan that is designed to root out Pakistani Taliban commander Baituallah Mehsud. The announcement comes as fresh airstrikes are conducted in South Waziristan, Bannu, Arakzai, and Bajaur. In Arakzai, the Commander Tariq Group was struck, but no casualties were reported.
Military claimed success in South Waziristan strikes as upcoming offensive is announced
The military claimed 30 Taliban fighters were killed and more than 50 were wounded in Saturday’s air blitz against Baitullah Mehsud’s home town of Makeen. Local tribal leaders claimed six civilians were killed.
On Sunday, the US launched a Predator airstrike in Baitullah’s turf in the Ladha region. Five “militants” were reported killed after Hellfire missiles slammed into their vehicle.
Ladha has been hit by US strikes three times since last October. The October attack killed Khalid Habib, the former leader of al Qaeda’s paramilitary Lashkar al Zil, or Shadow Army.
The Shadow Army operates a “command post” in Ladha, a senior US military intelligence source told The Long War Journal.
The airstrikes in Makin and Ladha were launched just before the governor of the Northwest Frontier Province said that a “decisive operation” will be carried out against Baitullah Mehsud in South Waziristan.
“The government has decided to launch an operation against militants in Fata [Federally Administered Tribal Agencies],” Governor Owais Ghani said at a press conference. “It has been decided that a comprehensive and decisive operation will be launched to eliminate Baitullah Mehsud and dismantle his network.”
There is no word if South Waziristan Taliban commander Mullah Nazir or North Waziristan commanders Hafiz Gul Bahadar and Jalaluddin and Siraj Haqqani will be included in the upcoming operation. An successful operation against Baitullah Mehsud would leave only three powerful networks intact.
Major General Athar Abbas, military’s chief spokesman, said the Pakistani Army will “give a comment after evaluating the orders” issued by the government. The military was defeated during three prior offensives in South Waziristan during 2004, 2005, and 2008. After each defeat, the military and government were forced to sign humiliating peace agreements that ceded the region to the Taliban.
As the military plans the South Waziristan offensive, Zainullah Mehsud, a rival and former commander of Baitullah, claimed he is organizing tribal resistance to Baitullah within the Mehsud tribal. In an interview with The Telegraph, Zainullah claimed to have the support of tribal leaders and said more than 3,000 fighters are on his side.
While Zainullah’s opposition to Baitullah is real, he is inflating his capabilities, influence, and number of followers within the Mehsud tribe, a senior US military intelligence official told The Long War Journal. Zainullah sided with Mullah Nazir of the rival Wazir tribe during his feud against Baitullah. But when Baituallah, Nazir, Bahadar joined forces last February at the behest of Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar, Zainullah was left exposed for opposing his own tribe.
Zainullah’s rivalry with Baitullah seemingly puts him on the side of the Pakistani state, but he admitted during the interview that he still supports the jihad against Afghanistan and the West.
“The whole Muslim world should come together because all infidels have come together against Islam. Whether it is Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, Chechnya, Muslims must protect ourselves,” Zainuddin told The Telegraph. “But we cannot go to Afghanistan these days because we have had to deal with Baitullah.”
More airstrikes in Bannu
The military also continued to conduct air and artillery strikes against Taliban strongholds in the Jani Khel and Baka Khel regions in Bannu. The attacks were carried out by Pakistani Air Force jets and helicopters, and artillery batteries from the recently recaptured Jani Khel Fort.
The Taliban were in control of the Jani Khel Fort for an unknown period of time before the military regained control of the fort late last week. Jani Khel is a known Taliban and al Qaeda sanctuary; al Qaeda is thought to have hosted its executive committee at Jani Khel in the past.
The military claimed 35 Taliban fighters were killed in the strikes, but the numbers could not be confirmed. The military did not report taking any casualties, which indicates that the military used air and artillery exclusively in the attacks. The military and tribal leaders from Bannu are reportedly in talks to “to save the area from destruction” but it is unclear if any agreement has been reached.
The military launched the Bannu operation a week ago after tribal leaders refused to hand over Taliban fighters involved in the kidnapping of hundreds of cadets and staff from a college in Ramzak in North Waziristan. The hostages were released.
New airstrikes in Arakzai
The military has launched another series of airstrikes against Taliban positions in Arakzai, this time against the Taliban group that took credit for last week’s suicide strikes in Peshawar and Lahore.
Early Sunday morning, Pakistani attack helicopters struck Taliban positions in three locations in the Darra Adam Khel region, Dawn reported. The military targeted the Commander Tariq Group, which is considered the most powerful Taliban group in Arakzai. No casualties were reported in the attacks.
The Commander Tariq Group is led by the powerful warlord Tariq Afridi. This group was behind the kidnapping and the eventual beheading of a Polish engineer earlier this year.
Amir Muawiya, the deputy a leader of the Commander Tariq Group, also claimed credit for the deadly suicide attack in Lahore that killed an anti-Taliban cleric and another attack against a five star hotel in Peshawar. Muawiya claimed the attack was carried out by a little-known group called the Abdullah Azzam Brigade.
Airstrikes also launched in Bajaur
The military also launched a series of airstrikes in the Bajaur tribal agency, where it had earlier claimed the Taliban was defeated after an operation last March.
Air force jets and attack helicopters struck Taliban command centers, bunkers, and fighting positions that dotted the Charmang Valley in Bajaur. After the military signed the ceasefire last March, the Taliban had remained in control of Charmang and Salarzai regions in Bajaur. The Taliban have ruled the region openly and its fighters continue to bear arms despite government claims that the Charmang and Salarzai tribes formed a lashkar, or tribal militia, to oppose the Taliban.
Taliban casualties in Bajaur were estimated at between 14 and 24 fighters killed.