ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN – Pakistan's Army moved into the Taliban’s base in South Waziristan Saturday in a ground offensive aimed at thwarting a resurgent enemy that has boldly targeted the country's urban population.
The operation, which follows a wave of attacks that claimed more than 150 lives, was first broached in June, following the military’s success in recapturing large swaths of the Swat Valley from the Taliban. Its lengthy delay had generated some concern among analysts who felt that the militants had been given time to regroup after the death of their iconic leader, Baitullah Mehsud, who was killed in a drone attack in August.
The operation in the harsh, mountainous terrain is expected to take
several months to complete. Rifaat Hussain, a security analyst at
the Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad, says the Army can expect to
encounter up to 30,000 militiamen and up to 1,000 suicide bombers.
He notes that the Army's task will be challenging. “The Army faces three major disadvantages: This is the Mehsud stronghold and their home turf, the Taliban can expect the assistance of the local public, and they have a short supply line from across the border from the Afghan Taliban," Dr. Hussain says.
The Pakistan Army entered South Waziristan in February 2005. But after early gains, it negotiated a peace deal with militants that quickly fell apart. A second operation in February 2008 was humiliatingly called off after troops were surrounded in Ladha Fort in the town of Makeen.
A similar bargain probably won't be in the cards this time, given the considerable political and public support for the operation as well as the increasing brazenness of militants, who last week stormed the Army's General Headquarters in Rawalpindi.
Military success is crucial, says Hussain, if the country is to put an end to the guerrilla warfare that has begun to engulf its major cities.
According to Dawn News, a private TV channel, more than 30,000 troops
have entered South Waziristan and are being supported by aerial
strikes. Four soldiers were killed and 12 injured in initial clashes,
while nine militants were killed.
Military spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas said that the initial
assault would focus on the slain Mr. Mehsud’s territory – roughly 3,310 square kilometers (about 1,300 sq. mi.), according to the Associated Press.
A civilian exodus of the area is ongoing, and more than 200,000 are
believed to have fled their homes since August.