Pakistani military and paramilitary troops arrested at least 20 people, including foreigners, in an operation conducted Tuesday against suspected Al Qaeda members and their tribal hosts in the hilly terrain near the border with Afghanistan.
The security forces, armed with automatic weapons and aided by gunship helicopters, conducted search and raid operations in South Waziristan, a tribal region that is a notorious haven for Al Qaeda and Taliban remnants. Men and women were detained in the six-hour operation, which also netted weapons, audiocassettes, and passports.
The latest roundup marks the beginning of a more intrusive approach in Pakistan's ongoing - and increasingly productive - efforts to eradicate militants within its borders. The incursion into the sensitive semiautonomous zone appeared designed to force further cooperation from tribal leaders and dislodge fighters from their hideouts, The stepped up military presence also may lay the groundwork for a major strike, widely anticipated this spring, in coordination with US forces across the border.
"Now, Pakistan seems very serious about rooting out jihadis - and the tribal region is pivotal to its success," says Mohammad Riaz, a Peshawar-based analyst.
Last week, the commander of US-led coalition forces in Afghanistan praised Pakistan for its recent roundup efforts. Lt. Gen. David Barno said a "hammer and anvil" operation was being launched, with Pakistan hammering at militant hideouts and US forces sealing the border from their side. Pakistan's The News reported on Monday that US and allied forces in Afghanistan have mobilized around the border and are conducting search operations in Khost.
"The strategy is to first cut off the supply line of Al Qaeda by rooting out their support among locals, choking the fighters in the mountains of Waziristan," says Sailab Mehsud, an author of two books on the region. Once the fighters are isolated in the mountains, he says, the US and Pakistan would have their enemy trapped.
In the past, the US has tried to play the role of hammer in coordinated operations with Pakistan. But US military officials have said they felt the Pakistanis could do more. Those close to the ground say that Pakistan relied heavily on scouts and paramilitary forces who often have mixed loyalties as Pashtun tribesmen.
Tuesday's operation involved hundreds of Pakistani regular soldiers, as well as paramilitaries. Witnesses say Pakistani forces have now sealed all roads leading to the tribal belt and established around 30 guard posts in and around the town of Wana.
"It is a cordon and search operation against foreign terrorists and their local facilitator tribesmen," says Azam Khan, Waziristan's top government official. He said the strategy was devised in phases, this being the second, and indicated that the whole process might take a couple of months to complete. "In the first phase, we took tribal leaders into [our] confidence and tried to neutralize the influence of clergy."
The first phase of operation started in January when authorities asked tribal leaders to surrender more than 80 tribesmen for harboring or helping Al Qaeda and Taliban militants. Local tribal leaders so far have handed over some 49 clan members; the deadline expired Friday. Authorities say the government has lost patience with tribal chiefs who failed to hand over some key suspects, now believed to have escaped.
Local sources say there are four most wanted tribesmen: Naik Mohammad, Mohammad Sharif, Maulvi Abbas, and Noor-ul Islam. All participated in the Afghan war against the Soviets with a mujahideen group led by Jalaluddin Haqqani, now a top Taliban commander and wanted by the US on terrorism charges.
"They are dangerous and loaded with money. They have dollars to buy unemployed and religiously motivated young men," says Sailab Mehsud, a Pakistani expert on Waziristan.
Pursuing the fighters and their tribal helpers poses a significant risk to the Pakistani government.
"There is anger among tribesmen and they consider these attacks as dishonor to their independence, culture and traditions," says tribal elder Malik Behram Khan. "The emotions are running high and we fear such operations in the future could trigger clashes between Pakistani forces and tribesmen."
Pakistani forces have scored a series of recent successes against Al Qaeda and Taliban militants. A close aide to ousted Taliban leader Mullah Omar was caught on the border in Pakistan's Balochistan Province. Security officials say the arrested man is identified as Mohammad Mannan and his interrogation might provide information about the whereabouts of Mr. Omar.
Seven suspected Al Qaeda men were arrested in Karachi last month. Two others were captured in Peshawar. Pakistan have handed over more than 500 Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters to the US over the past two years.