ISLAMABAD — The Pakistani army Sunday launched a long-awaited operation against foreign and local militants in a tribal region near the Afghan border, hours after jets pounded insurgent hideouts in the country’s northwest, the army said.
The move effectively ends the government’s policy of trying to negotiate with Pakistani Taliban militants instead of using force to end the years of fighting that has killed tens of thousands of civilians and security forces. It comes a week after the militants laid siege to the country’s largest airport in an attack that shocked the country.
The North Waziristan tribal area, where the operation is targeted, is one of the last areas in the tribal regions where the military has not launched a large operation. Militant groups including the Pakistani Taliban, al-Qaida and the Haqqani network have long used the region as a base from which to attack both Pakistan and neighboring Afghanistan.
“Using North Waziristan as a base, these terrorists had waged a war against the state of Pakistan,” military spokesman Gen. Asim Saleem Bajwa said in a press release announcing the operation.
The U.S. has pushed Pakistan to clear out militants in North Waziristan because they often use it as a sanctuary from which to attack NATO and Afghan troops. But Pakistan has said its troops were already too spread out across the northwest, and the military has also wanted political support from the civilian government to carry out an operation which will likely spark a bloody backlash across the country.
On Sunday night, the defense minister aggressively supported the operation, but there were no comments from Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
“Now we have to fight this do or die war,” Defense Minister Khawaja Muhammad Asif told Pakistan’s Dunya Television. “We will fight it till the end.”
There was no immediate information on how many troops were involved. The military said troops had been deployed along the borders to prevent militants from escaping, and within North Waziristan troops had cordoned off areas including the largest cities of Mir Ali and Miranshah.
Refugee camps have been established, the local population is being told to approach designated areas so they can be evacuated and surrender points have been established at which militants can give up their weapons, the military said. They also asked Afghanistan to secure its side of the border.
Exactly a week ago, ten militants and 26 people died when militants attacked the Karachi airport. The airport attack, against a transportation hub vital to the country’s economy, shocked Pakistanis, and appeared to mark a turning point.
Pakistan has been criticized for fighting some militants such as the Pakistani Taliban which attacks the state but maintaining links with other militant groups such as the Afghan Taliban or the Haqqani network that they feel help them maintain influence in Afghanistan.
A key question surrounding this operation will be whether it targets all the fighters equally, said Ayesha Siddiqa, author of “Military Inc.” about the Pakistani military. She also said that just focusing on North Waziristan ignores the wider problem of militants in the rest of the country.
“This is going half way, and not the full way,” she said.
Pakistan already has a sizeable military presence in North Waziristan, an estimated 28,000 to 30,000 troops, said defense analyst Zahid Hussain, whose book “The Scorpion’s Tale” plots the rise of militancy in Pakistan.
Hussain said militants had been using North Waziristan essentially as a training base. This operation will establish the military’s control across the territory and make it more difficult for militants to freely operate there. But, he warned, it won’t be easy, and it will likely spark reprisals.
“It is going to be a long drawn-out war. It is not going to end soon,” he said.
Even before the announcement, Pakistani jets early Sunday pounded insurgent hideouts in North Waziristan, targeting militants who carried out the Karachi airport siege, officials said. The military said 105 militants were killed in the strikes.
“There were confirmed reports of presence of foreign and local terrorists in these hideouts who were linked in planning the Karachi airport attack,” the military said.
One of those killed was Abu Abdul Rehman al-Maani, believed to have helped orchestrate the airport siege, two intelligence officials said. They did not want to be identified because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
The area where the strikes occurred is remote and dangerous for journalists, making it difficult to independently verify the accounts.
Residents in North Waziristan said they were woken up after midnight to the sound of jets roaring overhead but said the strikes happened in a remote, mountainous area.
“All the family members gathered in the yard in fear,” said one local resident, Tawab Khan, from the village of Boyapul, about eight kilometers (five miles) from where the airstrikes hit. “We could hear big bangs but they didn’t come from very close to our area.”
Already tens of thousands of residents of North Waziristan have fled the region due to earlier military airstrikes and out of fear of more. News of the operation will likely increase the exodus.
The military said most of the dead in the Sunday strikes were Uzbeks. Uzbek militants have long based themselves in Pakistan’s northwestern tribal areas.
The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, along with the Pakistani Taliban, claimed responsibility for the airport attack in what was a rare instance of the group striking within Pakistan. The militant group was formed in 1991 to overthrow the Uzbek government and install an Islamic caliphate there but later expanded that goal to include all of Central Asia. The organization has attacked U.S. and NATO targets in Afghanistan.