The Ghosts and Gains of Waziristan

Operation Zarb-e-Azb is a military offensive being conducted by Pakistani military forces against various militant groups in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas bordering Afghanistan. Up to 30,000 Pakistani soldiers are involved in Zarb-e-Azb, described as a “comprehensive operation” to flush out all foreign and local militants hiding in North Waziristan.

Wajahat S Khan in The News:

ZarbThe base throbs with uniforms of regular infantry battalions; yet, it is the human heart of a ghost town. Outside, Mir Ali has changed. North Waziristan has been taken, but at a cost: The entire city of Mir Ali has been depopulated through what Major General Zafarullah Khan Khattak, the General Officer Commanding of the 7th Infantry Division and the man in charge of Operation Zarb-e-Azb (“Strike of the Prophet’s Sword”), calls “an organised exodus”.

Earlier in the summer, when the operation was launched, weeks of air strikes, ground attacks and penetrating local militant networks with human and signals intelligence were not enough. Nor were the “strangulation operations” that had kicked off before the official campaign was launched on the 30th of June. ‘NWA’ was a different challenge from Swat, assessed the brass. The local population was “entrenched in a decade-long economy of terror” that made them “invested in the anarchy” that was North Waziristan, says General Khattak.

Since then, some 700,000 civilians have been displaced. Around 1,800 terrorists have been killed or captured. Around 200 tons of IEDs and ordnance have been found, “enough for the militants to keep on conducting five IED attacks per day, at a rate of three casualties per attack, for 14 and half years, anywhere in Pakistan or the region”, says the general. As for sheer firepower, the GOC assesses that “there were enough arms and ammunition in the area to raise an entire infantry brigade.”

To date, the army has lost 45 men in the campaign and sustained 155 casualties. Three would be killed on the same night that this correspondent was in North Waziristan, over the last weekend, when Operation Zarb-e-Azb would be completing its 138th day. Naturally, standing on the perimeters of the base, the junior officers are watchful.

“That’s Shahbaz Top. We still take rockets and sniper fire from there,” says Brigadier Azhar Abbasi of the 313 Brigade, sipping tea while wearing his armour, his radio set crackling, looking over the bombed out town, pointing to a peak. “They’re not civilised, the Tangos [army code for Taliban], but they are bloody good shooters. I’ve lost three men from shots that came from over 1,100 yards. All head shots, two of them in the nose. Dragunovs are their weapon of choice…Excellent weapons. But terrible men.”

Read the full article here.