PESHAWAR, Pakistan — The Pakistani army has launched a military operation to clear insurgents from North Waziristan — long a haven for al Qaida and the Afghan Taliban — and hopes to wind up offensive actions in all its tribal areas by June, according to the Pakistani general who's in charge of the special paramilitary force for the area.
Maj. Gen. Tariq Khan said the main Pakistani army was leading the assault in North Waziristan with a series of small operations, while his Frontier Corps was leading a major offensive in Orakzai, to which insurgents have fled after operations in other tribal areas.
The Pakistani army hadn't previously announced a North Waziristan operation.
In an interview with McClatchy, Khan said that five of the seven "agencies" of what formerly was called the Federally Administered Tribal Area were now under government control, with only Orakzai and North Waziristan remaining to be "cleared." The military then plans to send ground troops to sweep through all of the tribal area.
"This will finish in a couple of months. We'll take care of all of them. We're just waiting for the major operations — like Orakzai and North Waziristan — to finish, to spare us the troops to start changing our methodology. Instead of kinetic, concentrated operations, we start search and cordon and sting operations, for which actually you need more boots on the ground," said Khan, a swashbuckling general who has a reputation for taking extremists head-on.
Khan warned Pakistan's international partners that the region, which runs along the border with Afghanistan and includes Waziristan and the Khyber Pass, desperately needs development to prevent a resurgence by al Qaida and the Taliban. He said the minimal level of development needed would cost $1 billion.
However, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, Pakistan's army chief of staff, told officials in Washington earlier this month that corruption issues and security threats complicate efforts to rebuild the region, and there are few qualified political leaders to assume control when the army withdraws, which he said it was eager to begin doing, according to two U.S. officials who met with Kayani. Both spoke only on the condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to speak publicly.
The North Waziristan operation is crucial for U.S.-led forces across the border in Afghanistan. The U.S. and its NATO allies long have been pressing for action in North Waziristan, a base for al Qaida and the Haqqani network, one of the most powerful insurgent groups in Afghanistan. The Frontier Corps is supplying some troops for the Waziristan operation.
Orakzai, however, has become a magnet for insurgents who've been forced out of other tribal areas.
"Anybody who's anybody is now sitting in Orakzai," Khan said. "Everybody thought they'd be safe there. The terrain is pretty bad. The Uzbeks are there, and Arabs."
Khan said the North Waziristan operation would involve many smaller actions in comparison with the offensive that started last year in South Waziristan, which involved some 25,000 men steamrolling across the area.
"I think the kind of operations they're going to do (in North Waziristan) are going to be progressive. They're going to squeeze them out of areas, rather than carry out hard-core kinetic operations. They are going to be incremental," said Khan, who's led the 45,000-men strong Frontier Corps since September 2008.
Khan launched the assault on extremists in the tribal belt with a Frontier Corps operation in Bajaur in August 2008, with the military successively tackling each part of the trial area, most dramatically with an offensive in South Waziristan that began last October.
After the combat operations, the plan for the whole tribal area is to search every house there for links to the extremists and to go after the remnants of the Pakistani Taliban leadership, Khan said.
The Frontier Corps, which recruits exclusively from the tribal zone it protects, came under a mass assault Wednesday in the Khyber part of the tribal area, in a clash that left 20 insurgents and six soldiers dead. Some 80 to 100 Taliban attacked the post, according to the statement from the military, along with an explosives-laden vehicle that detonated before the onslaught was repulsed.
Violence has flared since the Frontier Corps launched an operation last week in Orakzai, which is next to Khyber. So far, more than 200 militants have been killed in that offensive, according to the Frontier Corps and local government officials, including 10 wiped out by attack helicopters Wednesday. Many extremists from other parts of the tribal area had fled to Orakzai, especially from the South Waziristan offensive.
The tribal area is one of the poorest parts of Pakistan. After the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, al Qaida and the Taliban fled across the border to the tribal area, turning it into an extremist fiefdom.
Khan said the world mustn't neglect the area as it did after the 1989 Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, or it could fall prey again to al Qaida and its allies.
"We need $1 billion to bring stability to a land that caused pain to the entire world, and we saw that impact ultimately on the Twin Towers," Khan said. "Everybody left an open wound here. They never concluded the war. The world needs to pay up for it. There's an obligation. "
"That's not a lot of money to pacify a region that is the cause of global conflict," he said.
Under a plan the Frontier Corps and the political authorities developed, the money would be spent repairing damage to roads, schools and other infrastructure, building facilities to provide health and education to the population, and developing agriculture and industry in the tribal area.
(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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