As a full Pakistani military offensive in the tribal district of North Waziristan took shape on Monday, commanders promised a crushing blow to the jihadi groups that have flourished there in the past decade, spreading chaos in the region and posing a security threat to the West.
Tanks rolled through the streets of Miram Shah, the district’s main town, as jet fighters pounded targets in a nearby valley and tens of thousands of residents fled to safer areas out of fear of an impending ground assault.
Pakistan’s army chief, Gen Raheel Sharif, vowed to disrupt militant sanctuaries ‘without any discrimination’ — a reference to the wide variety of militant groups, from the Taliban to Al Qaeda and the Haqqani network, that are based in North Waziristan and have drawn strength from their ability to share money, manpower and ideology.
But the looming battle will also be decided, experts and analysts said, in Pakistan’s major towns and cities, where the Taliban have threatened to exact violent retribution through mass mayhem. “By God, we will soon shake your palaces in Islamabad and Lahore and burn those to ashes,” the Taliban spokesman, Shahidullah Shahid, said in a statement on Monday.
The scale and virulence of any Taliban reprisals will offer a measure of how deeply the Islamist insurgents have penetrated mainstream society, experts say. Militant threats to bomb foreign airlines and business interests could further damage an economy that has already been crippled by years of violent upheaval.
And a rash of attacks would test the ability of the country’s feeble security forces to confront and defeat them — especially as ambiguities persist inside the military toward certain multinational networks.
“Establishing control in North Waziristan won’t be the biggest issue,” said Ayaz Amir, a former member of Parliament and a commentator. “The problem will lie in the militants’ pockets of support across the country.”
The jittery atmosphere was evident on Monday as soldiers patrolled the streets of Islamabad, and counterterrorism officials across the country arrested militant suspects as part of an effort to discover militant sleeper cells and pre-empt suicide bombings.
But the main focus was North Waziristan, where the military operation entered its second day. American-made F-16 jets struck targets in the Shawal Valley, a thickly forested highland area and notorious militant hide-out, the military said.
An intelligence official in Peshawar said one of those strikes had hit an abandoned school and killed 13 people, six of whom were members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, a jihadist group with Taliban ties that played a central role in an
audacious assault on the Karachi airport a week ago.
Hours later, a Taliban roadside bomb ripped through a military convoy north of Miram Shah, killing at least six soldiers.
Although the initial military drive is being led from the air, a ground operation looks likely. A military official in Peshawar said that about 2,300 soldiers had been moved into North Waziristan on Sunday, bringing the total strength there to about 20,000 soldiers, including paramilitary forces.
Control over information
Still, the exact situation was unclear. The military has tightly controlled the flow of information from the battle zone, which has been sealed off since Sunday and is out of bounds to most journalists.
More difficult to control, though, is the situation in the major cities, where the Taliban and allied militants have a history of killing and kidnapping civilians, sabotaging the economy and outgunning the regular security forces.
One major concern is an explosion of jihadi unrest in Punjab Province, where militant madrassas have quietly proliferated in recent years.
Unidentified gunmen on Monday abducted a nephew of the country’s chief justice in Multan, a city in southern Punjab, police officials and family members said.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility, but immediate suspicions fell on militants operating in the area. One of the victim’s relatives, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the missing man worked as a junior official at Inter-Services Intelligence, the military’s powerful spy agency.
The other major worry is Karachi, a city of 20 million people that has seen a gradual infiltration of Taliban fighters and sympathizers, many of whom have slipped into the city in the guise of refugees over the past five years.
A senior counterterrorism officer in Karachi, speaking on condition of anonymity, identified a militant cell from the Mohmand tribal agency, near Peshawar, as the most dangerous Taliban group. “They could target governmental installation, foreign companies or prominent personalities,” he said.
In an effort to pre-empt possible Taliban reprisals, the Karachi police have raided suspected Taliban hideouts in the city and detained a number of suspects since Sunday, the official said. Sharifuddin Memon, an adviser to the provincial home ministry, said that all new refugees would be registered as they entered Karachi and that no new refugee camps would be permitted on the edge of the city.
Capability issues aside, one major problem for the security forces in frontally tackling Islamist violence is the military’s continuing ambiguity toward some jihadi groups that are popularly known as the “good Taliban” in Pakistan.
For example, the North Waziristan offensive takes place in a district that is dominated by the Haqqani network, a fighting group that stages attacks in Afghanistan and has traditionally had close ties to Pakistani intelligence — one American general went as far as to call it a “virtual arm” of the Inter-Services Intelligence spy agency.
Until recently, Haqqani network operatives have mingled freely in North Waziristan alongside Pakistani Taliban fighters and the plethora of other militant outfits that shelter there. Pakistan’s rejection of American demands for an operation in North Waziristan contributed to the escalation of the CIA drone campaign, which has killed at least 2,300 people since 2008, according to groups that monitor the strikes.
But the current offensive in North Waziristan seems not as much a response to American browbeating as to the growing certainty that the Taliban are a major threat to stability in Pakistan. The operation has broad public support for now.
“Operation at last!” read Monday’s front-page headline in The Nation, a conservative English-language daily.
Major political figures have also voiced support for the military’s move — including Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who until recently wanted to negotiate a peace deal with the Taliban, and his opposition rival, Imran Khan, a longtime critic of attacking the Taliban who nonetheless said on Monday that he was reluctantly supporting the operation.
Away from the battle in Waziristan, analysts said, a crucial question now is the strength of the Taliban riposte, and whether it will sway public opinion. “Most people think it’s good that this operation has started,” said Amir, the commentator.
“But can we complement it with a broader antiterrorism policy across the country? That is the challenge for Pakistan.”