The Pakistan military's Operation Rah-e-Najat or "Path of Riddance" against insurgents in the tribal South Waziristan area is the government's toughest offensive since 2001. The target region is believed to be the crux of the growing Taliban and al Qaeda movement within Pakistan.
Both U.S. and Pakistani officials believe the majority of suicide attacks are carried out by a militant multi-national insurgency recruited and brought to the area to train.
Pakistani and insurgent officials have both claimed early victories, but independant confirmation is hard to come by.
High Stakes Offensive Inside Dangerous Tribal Region
The Pakistan army launched the offensive on Saturday after an emergency cabinet meeting in Islamabad. At least 28,000 Pakistani troops moved into the remote region in northwest Pakistan, near the Afghan border, from the south, east and north, the government says. They are backed by artillery and fighter jets.
South Waziristan is home to the Mehsud tribe. Operation Rah-e-Nejat is intended to "free the Mehsud tribesmen from the clutches of terrorists" according to the Pakistan army. The Mehsud live in highly fortified compounds designed to defend against the enemy, and have a reputation as fearless fighters.
Several top leadership posts within the Taliban in Pakistan's senior circle are held by Mehsud militants. In August 2009, the group acknowledged that their leader Baitullah Mehsud, had been killed in a U.S. airstrike on Aug. 5. Hakimullah Mehsud, from the same tribe, took his place. The Mehsud militancy twice signed peace deals with the Pakistani government, once in February 2005 and again in January 2008. Both times the group reportedly used the lull to expand influence and activity in the area.
The Pakistan army dropped leaflets across South Waziristan communities with a letter from the army chief Gen. Ashfaq Pervez Kayani asking the local population to rise up against the militancy. The first drop occurred on Tuesday, according to the Web site All Things Pakistan, which also translated a portion of the letter:
"The aim of the current military operation is not to attack proud and patriotic Mehsuds but it is to save them from the clutches of ruthless terrorists who have destroyed peace of the whole region. Therefore the aim of this operation will be Uzbek terrorists, foreign terrorists and local terrorists…I am hopeful that Mehsud tribes will side with the Pakistan military in this operation."
Pakistan Battles Insurgents in South Waziristan
There is a fear that if the militants are rooted out of the region they will spread across the country and insight violence elsewhere.
"There is always the possibility of terrorists sneaking from the neighboring agencies or from outside. That cannot be ruled out," said Abbas, the Pakistani military spokesman, in a briefing Tuesday. "We are very confident that we will be able to block any bulk of movement."
While the U.S. military is not directly involved in the Pakistan offensive on the ground they are reportedly monitoring the situation closely and sharing intelligence. There is a U.S. combat brigade of about 3,500 soldiers operating in the provinces on the Afghan side of the border across from South Waziristan but the U.S. says they are not actively assisting on the Pakistani side of the border.
Central Command chief, General David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, was in Islamabad on Monday and met with Kayani and with the Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani.
Pakistan Military Facing Fierce Fighters
Abbas said troops are encountering fierce fighting in some of the targeted areas. The military says it is facing an estimated 8,000 to 10,000 local militants and 1,500 foreign fighters in what can be extremely unforgiving and treacherous terrain. Pakistan experts suggest the element of foreign fighters differentiates this campaign from the one the military fought this past summer against the Taliban and al Qaeda in Swat Valley.
"The military in Pakistan understands that they are likely to encounter very fierce resistance from these so-called foreign fighters - Uzbeks, Chechens, Arabs and even some Chinese Uighurs," said Farzana Shaikh, an associate fellow with the London think tank Chatham House. "[These are] fighters who the army believes may be even more ideologically driven and altogether tougher nuts to crack than local tribesman with whom of course the army has a long history of doing deals."
The Associated Press reported that deals recently made with local Taliban renegades Maulvi Nazir and Hafiz Gul Bahadur, are helping the Pakistani military move more freely in the region during this operation.
In exchange, the army will ease patrols and bombings in the lands controlled by Nazir and Bahadur, two Pakistani intelligence officials based in the region, told the AP.
Abbas said that within the first 72 hours, Pakistani troops had managed to win control of two key areas: the northern Sherwangi area and what was described as "important tactical heights" overlooking the town of Kotkai. The town is known to be the hometown of the Taliban in Pakistan leader, Hakimullah Mehsud. Gen. Abbas said it is also home to Qari Hussein, a Taliban leader notorious for training suicide bombers. He said 60 militants had been killed and six Pakistani troops in the offensive in the first 24 hours of fighting.
Accurate Accounts of Fighting Hard to Come By
Numbers are difficult to independently verify due to a total media blackout on the ground.
"We know how to fight this war and defeat the enemy with the minimum loss of our men," a Taliban spokesman told the AP from an undisclosed location on Tuesday. "We will defend our land until our last man and our last drop of blood. This is a war bound to end in the defeat of the Pakistan army."
In other parts of the country the Pakistani police are conducting raids to clamp down on militant operations after a spate of recent attacks. In an apparent response to the offensive, on Tuesday in two separate attacks at Islamabad University at least four people were killed. At least half the student population is made up of women and hundreds are foreigners. The targets were a woman's café and a faculty building. The school receives funding from Saudi Arabia and is known to have both radical teachers and students make up a part of its community.
All schools and universities in three of the country's four provinces were shut down for the week by the government following the attack.
As followed the military operation in Swat Valley international humanitarian groups are preparing for an exodus of refugees but are having difficulty gaining access to the tribal areas. The United Nations estimates that 170,000 people will be displaced but other estimates put that number at 350,000. An estimated 150,000 people have already fled according to the AP.
Gul Zazir abandoned his home in the village of Makeen with eight family members. Like most, he told the AP he prefers to live with relatives or friends in nearby towns rather than a refugee camp which he compares to "living under God's mercy."
Thousands Homeless in Battle in Pakistan's Tribal Region
"How many more times do I have to leave my home in search of safety for my family, isn't this enough?" asked Hakee Jan, another refugee who fled his village of Sara Rogha.
The government is hoping Operation Rahe Nejat will finally end the militant threat stemming from South Waziristan. The greater Pakistani population will be watching closely to see what kind of independent progress the military can make. There are signs that within Pakistan the population is growing weary of foreign dependence, particularly reliance on the U.S.
The recently announced $7.5 billion U.S. aid package drew sharp internal criticism in Pakistan. In a survey conducted by pollster Gilani/Gallup Pakistan 60 percent of those asked believe it won't improve Pakistan's economy, 62 percent of those asked do not believe Pakistan is surviving on foreign aid. The aid package, part of the Kerry-Lugar Bill, requires lawmakers within Pakistan to certify to Congress that the country is making progress in the fight against terror. Critics believe conditioning military aid is problematic and can undermine improving the relationship between the two countries.
Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is in the region and met with military leaders soon after Operation Rahe Nejat was launched.
The offensive is expected to last two months.