Pakistan Army is poised to launch the much anticipated ground offensive against militants in North Waziristan Agency (NWA) within the next 48 hours after signalling on Thursday the near-completion of the evacuation of civilians from the troubled areas.
The Express Tribune has learnt through senior military officials that following days of air strikes, ground combat will begin anytime now.
Separately, the military’s chief spokesman Major-General Asim Salim Bajwa told a group of journalists at the General Headquarters in Rawalpindi that Operation Zarb-e-Azb was aimed at eliminating all terrorists, including the Haqqani network.
“There will be no discrimination. Whoever challenges the writ of the state will be taken to task. Operation Zarb-e-Azb is against all terrorists, both local and foreign,” the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) director general (DG) said in the first such on record briefing since the operation was launched.
When asked whether the ongoing operation would also target Haqqani network, the deadliest of all Afghan insurgent groups, he replied: “Once the troops enter there [North Waziristan] then you cannot draw a distinction.”
His statement appears to suggest a shift in Islamabad’s approach towards drawing a distinction between the ‘good and bad’ Taliban.
The country’s security establishment has often been accused by the US as well as Afghanistan of harbouring the Haqqanis, who carried out some of the most daring attacks against foreign forces in the neighbouring country.
For his part, the ISPR director general dismissed the perception, saying Pakistan had never supported any militant group, including the Haqqani network.
When asked, Maj-Gen Bajwa acknowledged that there was a possibility that some terrorists might have already fled Waziristan. However, he added that before announcing the operation, security forces isolated North Waziristan from the rest of areas as well as at the border.
About Hafiz Gul Bahadur, who struck a peace deal with the army, Maj Gen Bajwa made it clear that had he [Bahadur] honoured that deal there would have been no need for Operation Zarb-e-Azb. He also admitted that North Waziristan is the hotbed of all kinds of terrorists and said all major attacks in the country could be traced back to the restive tribal agency.
“This is the beginning of the end of terrorism in the country,” the ISPR DG said, saying the ongoing operation was the battle of survival for Pakistan.
On the other hand, he said the registration of internally displaced persons (IDPs) had been completed. “So far 456,292 people have been registered,” he told reporters. “We are still making announcements in the area for any civilians still left there,” he added.
Maj-Gen Bajwa made it clear that avoiding collateral damage in the operation was the main priority. This, according to him, was the reason the ground offensive was yet to be launched. “To avoid collateral damage, we will even delay the operation,” he said.
Security forces, according to him, have been directed to take care of human rights while carrying out the operation.
Detailing the result of preliminary military action in North Waziristan, the ISPR director general said as many as 327 suspected terrorists have been killed in air strikes and another 19 have surrendered themselves. Some 45 militant hideouts have been destroyed in the action, he added.
However, 10 security personnel have laid down their lives and seven others injured in the line of duty, he said.
About the identity of the terrorists killed in the air strikes, Maj-Gen Bajwa said once the ground assault was launched, a clear picture would emerge. “We have intercepted communication of terrorists… This is how we know of the casualties on their side,” he explained.
Published in The Express Tribune, June 27th, 2014.