DERA ISMAIL KHAN, Pakistan — Troops fought militants on three fronts and fighter jets bombed insurgent positions near the Afghan border today as Pakistan pressed ahead with an assault on the country’s main Taliban and al-Qaida stronghold.
The army and the Pakistani Taliban have each claimed early victories in South Waziristan, a lawless, semiautonomous region that Islamist extremists use as a base to plot attacks on the Pakistani state, Western troops in Afghanistan and targets in the West.
As the offensive entered its third day, Pakistani intelligence officials revealed that the army had reached prior agreements with two militant commanders — whose supporters are believed to be fighting U.S. forces in Afghanistan — to stay neutral during the assault.
That could trigger concern in Washington, which has been pushing Islamabad to launch the offensive, seen as the most crucial yet against militants who are in control of a large swath of Pakistan’s northwestern frontier region. Militants have carried out a string of bloody attacks in recent weeks, including a 22-hour siege of army headquarters.
Today, U.S. Central Command chief David Petraeus met Pakistan’s prime minister and army chief in the capital. U.S. Sen. John Kerry also met the two Pakistanis to try and ease tensions over an American aid bill that has caused a rift between Pakistan’s army and civilian government.
Army spokesman Maj. Gen. Gen. Athar Abbas said 78 militants and nine soldiers have been killed since the offensive began Saturday. It is nearly impossible to independently verify what is going on in South Waziristan because the army is blocking access to it and surrounding towns.
Intelligence officials said the army before the offensive had reached verbal agreements with two militant commanders, Maulvi Nazir and Hafiz Gul Bahadur, aimed at ensuring they stay neutral during the offensive. In return, the army will not attack the men and their fighters, who concentrate on battling U.S. troops in Afghanistan, the officials said on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the information.
Abbas told The Associated Press “there was an understanding with them that they will not interfere in this war.”
“There is always a strategy to isolate your main target,” he told reporters, adding you “sometimes have to talk to the devil in this regard.”
Asked whether the agreement was holding, he said, “Obviously, they are not coming to rescue or to help.”
The offensive is focused on eliminating Pakistani Taliban militants linked to the Mehsud tribe, who control about half of South Waziristan and are blamed for 80 percent of the suicide attacks that have battered Pakistan over the last three years.
The army wants to isolate the Mehsud tribe from others in the region, something many analysts say will be key to its success or failure as the army does not have the strength to take on all the groups in the region simultaneously. Pakistan troops have been beaten back from the mountainous region in South Waziristan three times since 2004.
The United States has made it clear it would like Pakistan to target all militant groups in the northwest, regardless of where their interests lie. U.S. Embassy officials declined comment when asked about the deals apparently struck with the two commanders.
Abbas said forces were moving deeper into militant-controlled territory from three directions today, taking rocket fire and fighting insurgents. Jets were making bombing runs in the Ladha and Makeen areas, he said.
Some 30,000 troops are up against an estimated 10,000 Pakistani militants and about 1,500 foreign fighters.
As many as 150,000 civilians have left the region in recent months after the army made clear it was planning an assault, but some 350,000 people may be left. Authorities say up to 200,000 people may flee in the coming weeks.
“The situation in Waziristan is getting worse and worse every day,” said Haji Sherzad Mehsud as he lined up for aid in Dera Ismail Khan, a town near South Waziristan.
Accounts from residents and those fleeing Sunday suggested militant resistance was far tougher than in the Swat Valley, another northwest region where insurgents were overpowered earlier this year. Officials have said they envisage the operation will last two months, when winter weather will make fighting difficult.
The U.S. has rushed to send equipment, such as night-vision goggles, to aid the offensive.
Petraeus, who oversees the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, is a regular visitor to Islamabad.
Kerry is the co-sponsor of a bill signed by President Barack Obama last week that gives $1.5 billion annually over five years for economic and social programs. Pakistan’s government supports the bill, but the army and opposition politicians have complained that some of the aid comes with strings attached that amount to American meddling in security affairs.
In a statement, Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani said the United States must address the concerns through “tangible initiatives” but said he hoped the conditions attached to the package would not stop Washington handing over the aid.
The legislation requires Pakistan to crack down on terrorism and ensure civilian control over the army, among other things.
Also today, police said they had arrested a man identified as the head of the Pakistani Taliban in the southern city of Karachi along with three other alleged militants in connection with a foiled attempt to attack an oil terminal last month.
Police officer Waseem Ahmed identified the alleged Karachi Taliban head as Akhtar Zaman. He and the others were arrested in a raid on a building in the western part of the city. Wearing women’s burqas, three suspected militants killed a security guard as they tried to enter the oil terminal last month, but fled as police arrived.