Some 10,000 troops are conducting a major operation in Orakzai tribal agency as part of a year of offensives in which the military has gained ground but failed to capture key leaders or prevent retaliatory bombings.
While attacks have ebbed recently in Pakistan's biggest cities, they continue apace in the northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Monday’s bombing killed up to four policemen, including senior officer Iqbal Khan, along with women and children. A Taliban spokesman told Agence France-Presse that the group had intended to kill Mr. Khan, who was “so active against the Taliban.” The bombing appeared to have been attached to a bicycle and detonated remotely.
Fighting for momentum
Since last spring, the Army has tackled Swat Valley and South Wazirstan and Bajaur tribal agencies, but many Taliban leaders are thought to have slipped away to other areas, such as Orakzai. Since late February, the Army has committed some 6,000 soldiers and 4,000 paramilitary troops as well as significant air power to Orazkai to conduct search operations. It claims to have killed 47 militants in the past two days amid heavy clashes, and lost two soldiers.
The Army is eager to seize the offensive, says Rifaat Hussain, a security analyst at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad, lest the public, which has backed the Army for more than a year, start to withdraw their support.
“The end goal is to isolate these people from the local population and corner them and deny them easy victory. But I think pretty soon you will think of launching a full-scale operation to put these guys out of business, because you can’t afford a stalemate,” he says.
Ayaz Amir, a member of parliament for the opposition Pakistani Muslim League-Nawaz party, argues more decisive victories may be needed to maintain public support. “The war is starting to drag on, it’s not turning any decisive corner,” he says. “The euphoria of South Waziristan and Swat will dim and war weariness will dim.”
A possible distraction
Adding to the military’s concerns is the looming possibility of a natural disaster in the northern Hunza district, where a mudslide in January created an artificial lake, some 6.8 miles long and 330 feet deep, that threatens to burst its banks and displace up to 30,000 people.
Some 7,000 people have already been forced to move and 20 killed, according to Pakistan’s National Disaster Management Authority.
Army engineers have been working to stem the overflow created by glacial melt in the surrounding mountains. Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani is set to visit the area soon.
Pakistan’s Army is “the only institution equipped to deal with such crises,” says military analyst and retired general Talat Masood. He adds that the situation may “divert the attention and resources” of the military.