ISLAMABAD — Pakistan’s military operations against Taliban insurgents in the country’s northwest tribal areas have reached a turning point with the imminent retaking of a militant stronghold near the legendary Khyber Pass.
After months of operations, which saw Pakistani special forces parachute into the area in March, the military succeeded over the weekend in taking mountain ridges that overlook the junction of the Khyber and Kurram tribal agencies, prompting insurgents of the self-described Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan to flee.
"All the dominating heights in the area have been secured by the security forces," Pakistan’s Inter Services Public Relations has announced.
The imminent recapture of the Maidan area of Khyber and the Para Chamkani area of Kurram, which the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan and their ally Lashkar-i-Islami have held since 2009, has marooned the rest of the Taliban insurgents in pockets of territory, setting up an endgame that could see Pakistan secure its tribal areas and the border with Afghanistan before the United States and allied combat troops leave Afghanistan in December 2014, analysts said.
Effectively, the weekend’s gains in Khyber have secured the largely peaceable northern tribal areas of Bajaur and Mohmand against Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan reinforcement and made further attacks from Afghan territory much more difficult to stage.
Victory in the northern tribal area means the Pakistani military would be able to divert more forces and firepower to the Kurram and Orakzai agencies to the south, where Pakistan troops supported by air force jets and helicopter gunships have made significant inroads this year.
Their shared border with North Waziristan is the base of operations for the chief of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, Hakimullah Mehsud, who’s all but cut off from the major militant factions, and in December suffered the indignity of being fired by the outfit’s ruling council, according to the FATA Research Center, an independent think tank in Islamabad.
His successor, Waliur Rehman Mehsud, who led the South Waziristan Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, the largest faction, was killed in a U.S. drone strike May 30, leaving the organization leaderless and divided, analysts at the think tank said.
Success at the strategic junction of the Khyber, Kurram and Orakzai agencies is expected this year and could prepare the ground for a decisive campaign next spring in North Waziristan, a veritable hive of terrorists from the region and beyond.
The U.S. has asked Pakistan repeatedly to launch operations there, specifically against the Haqqani network, an Afghan Taliban faction that’s thought to have links to Pakistan’s military.
The anticipated final phase of Pakistan’s military operations in North Waziristan already has prompted Afghan Taliban militants to leave, but sources close to al Qaida have said the Haqqani network’s operations chief, Sirajuddin Haqqani, has resisted repeated requests from the Pakistani military to return to Afghanistan.
A ranking Afghan Taliban commander, speaking only on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic, said expectations were that the Pakistan military eventually would go after Haqqani and the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan in North Waziristan.
“There’s no doubt that if it is left with no other option, the Pakistani army will soon go after both the TTP and Haqqanis, because it needs to secure the border before the Americans leave Afghanistan,” he said. “Once that decision is taken, the fight will brief, bloody and final."
Hussain is a McClatchy special correspondent. Special correspondent Amjad Hadayat contributed to this report from Karachi.