Pakistan is on the verge of launching a major military operation in North Waziristan tribal region near the country’s porous border with Afghanistan after talks with the banned Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (the umbrella organization of dozens of Pakistani extremist groups) for bringing peace to the country collapsed. Reports from North Waziristan, considered a bastion of TTP and its Al-Qaeda affiliates, suggests that a low-level operation is already underway.
Pakistani jets and gunship helicopters have been targeting the TTP compounds for the past few days. The country’s military says more than 100 extremists have been killed in these attacks. “It’s preparation for a major military push,” said one military analyst in Islamabad, insisting that the pounding is meant to what he called “softening” the targets before boots on ground are placed.
Washington Post reported on Feb 25 that Pakistan’s military had shared its operational details with the United States. These reports are coming on the heels of quiet back-to-back visits to Pakistan by CIA Director John Brennan and Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, the U.S. Central Command chief. Pakistan’s defense secretary is currently in Washington, heading a high-level delegation for security talks.
According to WP report, a skeptical U.S. is warm to the prospects of a military operation in North Waziristan, which has been its longstanding demand. “We’ll believe it when we see it,” said one U.S. official, who like other American and Pakistani officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss diplomatic contacts and military plans, said the Post report.
Pakistan has seen a major initiative for peace in recent days to end over a decade-long Taliban/Al-Qaeda-driven terrorism, which has killed over 50,000 of its citizens. Talks between government and Taliban representatives broke down after latter announced beheading of 23 soldiers in their captivity. The terror network refused to a ceasefire proposal from the government negotiators and continued targeting civilian and security forces in Karachi and Peshawar.
Security forces also stepped up their operations against extremists in the past two weeks. A senior commander of the outlawed TTP — Asmatullah Shaheen Bhittani — was gunned down by unidentified gunmen in the Datta Khel area of North Waziristan on Feb 24. The Taliban blamed Pakistan’s Inter Service Intelligence (ISI), the country’s premier intelligence agency, for Shaheen’s death, who remained acting chief of the TTP after the last TTP chief Hakimullah Mehsud was eliminated in a drone attack on November 1, 2013.
“This is a drone’s alternative. Now we are being hunted through ground drones,” Pakistani media quoted Taliban spokesman Shahidullah Shahid as saying. A report posted on BBC Urdu website quoted Taliban claiming that the CIA and ISI had replaced the use of drone against them with ground operations. Pakistan has seen sharp decrease in drone attacks in the past three months. Washington Post in it’s Feb 25 report said the U.S. had honored a request from Pakistan which had assured that if the peace talks failed, Islamabad would launch a military operation.
But not every one in Pakistan is convinced that Asmatullah’s death was an ISI operation. Amir Mir, a respected Pakistani journalist, is one of them. In a report published in The News International on Feb 25, Mir said the mystery murder was the outcome of an intra-TTP rift, which is gradually turning into a bloody war, especially after Hakimullah Mehsud’s death. Asmatullah Bhittani was among the 20 most-wanted TTP commanders.
According to highly-informed sources in the militant circles, Bhittani has been killed by Said Khan Sajna faction of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan to avenge the deaths of three comrades of Sajna, who were shot dead in the Datta Khel area of North Waziristan by Bhittani’s men last week. Bhittani, along with three of his aides, was killed when unidentified gunmen opened fire on his car in the Dargah Mandi area of Ghulam Khan Tehsil in North Waziristan. Bhittani had served as the acting Ameer of TTP after Hakimullah Mehsud’s death and played a key role as the Ameer of the TTP’s supreme Shura in the appointment of Mullah Fazlullah as the new Ameer. He had narrowly escaped the January 20, 2013 air strikes by PAF fighter jets in the Mir Ali area of North Waziristan. Coming from the Khichi sub-tribe of Bhittani in South Waziristan, he was a close confidant of Hakimullah Mehsud and known for his ruthless tendency towards those taken prisoners by the TTP.
Pakistan has seen pro-army rallies in recent days as part of what is believed to be efforts to drum up public support for a military action against the militants, who refuse to recognize the country’s constitution and want to replace it with their brand of Islamic Shariah.
One such rally was held on Feb 23 in Karachi by Muttahida Qaumi Movement, where its London-based leader Altaf Hussain said that Pakistanis would stand behind the government and the armed forces in any action against the terrorists. “The army should move against the terrorists as the nation is fully backing them,” he told party supporters.
MQM is widely believed to have been created by Pakistan’s powerful establishment in the 1980s to dent the support for Islamist Jamaat-e-Islami party in the southern port city and business hub of Karachi. But its alliance with the military establishment fell apart in 1992 when a military operation was launched against it and in which, MQM claims, thousands of its workers were killed. But the party has remained a strong ally of the military establishment ever since. It supported the former military ruler General Pervez Musharraf’s government besides remaining a coalition partner of pretty much every government in the past nearly 25 years.
But not every one in Pakistan believes the MQM’s Karachi show was just meant to shore up support for a military action. Rather some believe it might have been part of the party’s efforts to remain on good terms with the military establishment for reasons which could directly impact its leader in London.
Mr Hussain enjoys widespread popularity in Karachi. He is known for his theatrics, which many believe might be aimed at fighting off negative publicity surrounding his personality. He is facing British investigations in connection with money laundering, inciting violence in Karachi and the murder of a party leader, Dr Imran Farooq, in London on September 16, 2010.
Scotland Yard believes two men involved in the murder of the former MQM leader, who many believe was on the verge of launching his own political party, fled to Pakistan after committing the crime and are currently in custody of Pakistani intelligence agencies. Pakistan has so far avoided handing over the suspects to the British authorities who could hold the key to resolving this high profile murder mystery.
The reality of MQM’s pro-military show may be any, but it certainly has set the ball rolling to prepare ground for a military action against the militants. Mr Hussain for years has been warning of Taliban’s presence in Karachi, but has rarely demanded military action in Karachi.
The coming days and weeks will be critical for Pakistan and it is yet to be seen how effective the possible military offensive will be, in which Pakistan has started using its own drones. Respected Pakistani journalist Shaheen Sehbai, in a report published in The News International, quoted unnamed military sources as saying that ground intelligence, combined with accurate data by the Pakistani drones, had made it possible to take out the TTP targets in Tirah and Mir Ali recently, creating a scare among the TTP ranks not seen before.
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