A year on from the launch of a major offensive to eradicate strongholds of Taliban and other militants in North Waziristan tribal area, the military says the job is 90 percent done.
It is now positioning troops around the Shawal Valley, a key location close to the Afghan border that is home to some of the last redoubts of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), according to locals and security sources.
The army says it has killed more than 2,700 militants since the launch of the offensive — dubbed Zarb-e-Azb — last June, and destroyed more than 800 of their hideouts.
A senior military official directly linked to the offensive said the army was gearing up for the final push and using air strikes before moving in ground troops.
“We are turning hard targets into soft through aerial bombing because forces expect a resistance in Shawal,” he told AFP.
The troop movements were confirmed by locals, though some tribal elders warned militants were slipping across the porous mountainous border into Afghanistan.
“Up to two dozen militants are leaving the area every day and around 200 militants recently moved into part of Afghan territory,” elder Ajab Khan told AFP.
He warned the remaining areas where TTP fighters are holed up will be difficult fighting terrain — mountainous and thickly forested.
But security analysts caution that military gains will serve little purpose unless and until the lawless, semi-autonomous tribal areas see administrative reform and economic development.
The Federally-Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) are among the poorest in Pakistan, and are governed under a draconian legal system introduced by British colonial rulers more than a century ago.
“The longevity of the ‘final push’ would largely depend on the constitutional status of the region,” said Imtiaz Gul, executive director at Center for Research and Security Studies (CRSS).
“Until the FATA region is mainstreamed and brought under the law of the land, keeping it clear of militants and criminals would be difficult.”
Hundreds of thousands of civilians were forced to leave North Waziristan by the offensive. Retired Lieutenant General Talat Masood said reintegrating them was key to success.
“These military gains will only be a part of the exercise. Complete success depends on the rehabilitation of the displaced people and development in the tribal region,” he told AFP.
Zarb-e-Azb does seem to have had a positive impact on militant attacks, which have been down overall, with some shocking exceptions, such as the December massacre by Taliban gunmen of more than 130 children at a school in Peshawar. -AFP