The Pakistani military has launched an operation against two pro-Taliban tribes in the district of Bannu just outside of North Waziristan.
The military claimed 20 Taliban fighters have been killed in heavy fighting and artillery strikes on Taliban safe havens. More than 70 tribesmen from the Jani Khel and Baka Khel tribes have been detained, and businesses run by the two tribes have closed down. The actions have been taken under the Frontier Crimes Regulation, which allows for collective punishment of the tribes. The two tribes said it would end the peace agreement that has been in effect since last year.
Over the weekend, the military and police imposed a curfew and moved hundreds of soldiers into the Jani Khel and Baka Khel tribal areas after negotiations between the government and the tribes failed. The government insisted the tribes turn over members of the Taliban responsible for last week’s brazen kidnapping of hundreds of cadets and staff from a military college in Ramzak in North Waziristan; the government also demanded that the tribes expel any Taliban and foreign fighters. The government claimed the tribes were behind the kidnappings.
After all of the hostages were released, the Jani Khel and Baka Khel tribes refused to hand over the Taliban to the government. Tribal leaders said they “don’t have the power to confront the Taliban and therefore cannot give any guarantees to the government,” Dawn reported.
Three of the four largest Taliban contingents in North and South Waziristan are thought to have cooperated to conduct the kidnappings. North Waziristan Taliban commander Hafiz Gul Bahadar teamed up with South Waziristan Taliban leaders Baitullah Mehsud and Mullah Nazir. Bahadar is said to have set up the kidnapping, Nazir provided fighters to assist, and Baitullah is said to have held the cadets and staff.
Earlier this year, Baitullah, Bahadar, and Nazir 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 group vowed to pool resources to halt any military operation in the Waziristan region.
The three Taliban leaders and the Haqqani Network, also based in North Waziristan, 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.
A prelude to a Waziristan operation?
The military’s movement against the Bannu tribes signals that the government may be prepared to move into Waziristan, the heart of Taliban country.
A senior Pakistani military official told The Long War Journal that an operation against the Taliban in South Waziristan will be launched “within a couple of weeks.” There have been rumors of a Waziristan operation for weeks after the Taliban began attacking the military in the region, but President Asif Ali Zardari and Army spokesman Major General Athar Abbas have attempted to squelch these rumors.
The Jani Khel and Baka Khel tribal areas sit astride Miramshah-Bannu road [see map below]. This road would serve as a primary logistical route for troops and supplies moving into North Waziristan. These tribal areas must be tamed to keep the road open.
This region also serves as a primary hub for Taliban and al Qaeda bases in Bannu and North Waziristan. Taliban and al Qaeda training camps in Jani Khel have been the targets of the only two US Predator airstrikes in Bannu. Senior al Qaeda operative Abdullah Azzam al Saudi was killed in a Predator strike on Nov. 19, 2008. Azzam served as a liaison between al Qaeda and the Taliban operating in Pakistan’s northwest. He also facilitated al Qaeda’s external operations network and served as a recruiter and trainer. The US has also struck at camps in Data Khel and Miramshah.
The military is also reported to have reinforced in the Jandola region just west of Tank. Jandola also sits astride the main route into South Waziristan and the main town of Wana. The military base at Ramzak at the border between North and South Waziristan would also be used to conduct operations in either agency.
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 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, 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. The recent alliance between Baitullah, Nazir, and Bahadar has unified the Waziristan Taliban.
Map of the Bannu-North Waziristan region