March 3, 2010— -- In what is being hailed as a major victory against al Qaeda and its allies, Pakistani forces announced the capture of caves described as the nerve centre of militant activity on the Afghan-Pakistan border.
An elaborate network of over 150 caves, believed to have once housed Al Qaeda's number two Ayman al Zawahiri, was revealed to journalists by the Pakitani military
"The location of Bajaur, especially Damadola, is very significant. The militants controlled their operations from this place," Maj. Gen. Attar Abbas, Pakistani army spokesman, said.
The caves are impossible to spot from the air, but inside the tunnels carved into the moutains was a warehouse of military supplies including stockpiles of guns and ammunition, bazookas, artillery shells, rocket propelled grenades, mines and stolen U.S. army uniforms. Some of the material was from Iraq, others from Iran.
There were caches of water and food. Television pictures showed one dormitory-like cave with pillows and blankets scattered on the ground.
The honeycombed hideout was so well concealed that villagers had to show the army where they were.
Former U.S. Army Ranger Andrew Exum, looking at video of the complex, said, "They seem to be quite well organized."
But seeing how much cash and supplies the militants left behind indicated that "They didn't have time to plan an egress, otherwise they would have wanted to take at least some of this," Exum said.
Reporters who visited the site also captured on camera the new pro-government militia claiming to replace the militants. Hundreds of men gathered in Bajaur's main town of Khar and, with their guns in the air, cheered "Long live Pakistan!"
The seizure of the caves in Damadola is seen by the Pakistani military as an indication that they are in the final phases of Operation Sherdil (Lionheart) which began in 2008.
"The big operation has come to an end, but we cannot rule out the possibility of small operations in the surrounding areas," Abbas said.
Bajaur, a province or agency 120 miles (200 km) northwest of Pakistan's capital Islamabad, has long been home to Taliban and al Qaeda militants.
In January 2006 a U.S. drone strike targeting Zawahiri, who runs al Qaeda along with Osama bin Laden, hit the village of Damadola. Zawahiri, who was thought to be visiting a house there, escaped the strike but 18 people were killed.
Some Pakistan watchers, however, remain wary of the significance of the cave capture.
"It is very difficult to tell at this point what this will amount to," Dr. Farzana Shaikh, an associate at London think tank Chatham House, said.
As in the past militants have simply returned after major operations have cleared areas. Shaikh also points out that coverage of this operation has been very carefully orchestrated by the Pakistani military.
Pakistan Taking on Al Qaeda and Taliban
"The broader significance of this mission is to show that the Pakistani military is making significant gains," she says.
The Obama administration has made it clear to Pakistan that it will no longer tolerate a policy of ambivalence toward the Taliban and foreign fighters. Pakistan is keen to show its ally it is serious in its intent to clear the region of militants.
Militants from Bajaur are thought to have launched attacks against the U.S. military in Afghanistan as well as targets within Pakistan.
"We have better control of the area now and that will have a good effect on the operations across the border," Abbas said.
Pakistani officials realize that the next phase in Bajaur – the introduction of government and infrastructure – is crucial.
"If the ownership of the people is there and if your presence is there, if there is confidence in the government, we feel there is no reason for them [the insurgents] to return," Major-General Tariq Khan, the Pakistan regional commander who led the operation, told reporters.
"A substantial amount of them have been killed, but that is just an estimate. Nobody can give you an factual figure of how many people are running up and down. They can't even find Osama bin Laden yet," Khan said.
Shaik agrees that al Qaeda's strength in the region remains impossible to gauge.
"How many are leaving and taking refuge in Yemen and Somalia is difficult to tell," she said.
The Pakistani military said that as many as 75 foreign fighters were killed in the final phases of this offensive including Arabs, Chechens, Uzbeks and Afghans.
The military acknowledged that many more may have fled over the border into Afghanistan or elsewhere in Pakistan.
"I would give you a rough estimate that about 25 percent must have gone across the border. Another about 10 or 15 percent might have melted back into the areas of Swat (Valley) etc., where they'd come from," Khan said.
It is also no coincidence that this new vigor in Operation Sherdil comes at the same time as a policy shift in Afghanistan, Shaikh points out.
Officials in Kabul are now prepared to negotiate with the Taliban, and Pakistan is keen to have a say in these negotiations she said.