Drones Push Taliban From a Pakistani Haven
A Pakistani soldier takes part in an army offensive in Kurram in July – Reuters
PESHAWAR, Pakistan—A U.S. campaign of drone strikes in Pakistan is driving some insurgents from a key haven on the Afghan border into other tribal districts, where they are aggressively laying the groundwork for a new base of operations, Pakistani officials say.
The militants are fleeing into regions where Pakistan’s army, which refused to chase them down in their haven in North Waziristan, is already deployed in large numbers and in a position to fight.
North Waziristan has become a nerve center of al Qaeda, Taliban and allies in the Haqqani network, from where they stage attacks on troops in Afghanistan.
The Central Intelligence Agency’s drone campaign in the tribal areas has begun to push militants north out of North Waziristan into other semiautonomous tribal regions, Kurram and Orakzai, according to Pakistani political and military officials and local tribal leaders.
Kurram—the “parrot’s beak” of Pakistan that juts into Afghanistan—includes a key transit point to Afghanistan’s Paktia province.
“They’ve dispersed from the south [of the tribal regions] all over,” said an official with the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, Pakistan’s military spy agency.
The Taliban don’t appear to be abandoning their North Waziristan base, and it is unclear how many forces they intend to shift—or if they are simply making contingency plans.
An earlier Pakistani offensive into South Waziristan in 2009 pushed many militants north to North Waziristan.
U.S. officials say that militants have been known to move among tribal areas, but that they were unaware of any large-scale movements out of North Waziristan in response to the recent drone strikes.
The U.S. has pressed Pakistan to launch a new major offensive in North Waziristan. Pakistan says its army is stretched thin and doesn’t yet have control of neighboring tribal agencies. It says a large-scale operation in North Waziristan will just push militants into other areas and prompt retaliatory strikes in Pakistani cities.
The CIA, meanwhile, has ramped up drone attacks. The U.S. hasn’t targeted Kurram with a large number of strikes, according to the New America Foundation think tank, which counts only three attacks there in the past two years.
The Pakistani army has been on the offensive in Kurram and Orakzai, but gains there have looked fragile. The army has said it is moving to reassert control in the two tribal agencies, but that it will take time.
Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, the Pakistani army chief, claimed victory over the Pakistan Taliban in Orakzai in June, three months after the start of an offensive there. But since then, the army says it has lost control of a fifth of Orakzai, as militants driven out by the initial offensive moved back into the mountainous territory.
The militants’ migration to tribal areas to the north illustrates the difficulty of pinning down insurgents in the remote, mountainous tribal regions of northwest Pakistan.
A military invasion of North Waziristan would intensify fighting between the army and insurgents in neighboring areas, said Malik Haji Gul Akbar, a Sunni tribal elder from Kurram. He said fighters from the Sunni extremist Taliban are increasingly moving into his community. “If there’s fighting in North Waziristan it will spread in to Kurram and Orakzai,” he said.
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North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces in Afghanistan have also been increasingly chasing militants over the border into Kurram. It was such a raid that led to the mistaken killing of three Pakistani border guards in late September by NATO helicopters. Elders from the Shiite Muslim community that controls much of Kurram—including access points from the upper parts of the district into Afghanistan—said Taliban militants have been ramping up pressure to establish themselves there. The Haqqani network is involved in brokering negotiations, Shiite and Sunni tribal leaders say.
Ali Qambar, a Shiite leader of the Turi tribe, said the Shiite community wouldn’t allow Taliban to use its territory as a haven or transit route as part of any deal. “It should be very clear that the Turi tribe is fighting against terrorism,” he said.
The Turi tribe has fought Sunni communities for decades.
Tribal elders say nine people from their community were kidnapped three months ago by Taliban militants to pressure them to give access to their territory.
The community is cut off from the rest of Pakistan, hemmed in between the Afghan border to the west and Taliban fighters to the south and east.
“If the Sunni and Shia reach consensus, it will serve the militants” by allowing them a haven and access to key transit points to Afghanistan, says Mian Iftikhar Hussain, information minister in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, which borders the tribal regions.
The Pakistan military says its problems mirror those facing North Atlantic Treaty Organization-led forces in Afghanistan, who have seen the insurgency intensify in the north of the country in recent months as the coalition pursues major offensives in the Taliban’s southern strongholds.
Adam Entous contributed to this article.
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