Amid fierce fighting, Taliban predicts it will prevail
Pakistan attacks militants’ stronghold near Afghan border
DERA ISMAIL KHAN, Pakistan - Pakistani troops and the Taliban fought fierce battles yesterday in a militant sanctuary near the Afghan border, with both sides claiming early victories in an army campaign that could shape the future of the country’s battle against extremism.
A Taliban spokesman vowed the Islamist militants would fight to “our last drop of blood’’ to defend their stronghold of South Waziristan, predicting the army would fail in its latest attempt to gain control over it.
The army said 60 militants and six soldiers had been killed since the offensive began Saturday in the mountainous, remote region that the army has tried and failed to wrest from near-total insurgent control three times since 2004.
The Taliban claimed to have inflicted “heavy casualties’’ and pushed advancing soldiers back into their bases. It was not possible to independently verify the claims because the army is blocking access to the battlefield and surrounding towns.
Victory for the government in South Waziristan’s tribal badlands would eliminate a safe haven for the Taliban militants blamed for surging terrorist attacks and the Al Qaeda operatives they shelter there. It would also send a signal to other insurgent groups in the nuclear-armed country of the military’s will and ability to fight them.
Defeat would give the militants a propaganda victory, add to pressures on the country’s shaky civilian government, and alarm Pakistan’s Western allies, which want to see it successfully crack down on militancy that is both fueling and feeding off the insurgency in neighboring Afghanistan.
“We know how to fight this war and defeat the enemy with the minimum loss of our men,’’ Taliban spokesman Azam Tariq said from an undisclosed location. “This is a war imposed on us, and we will defend our land until our last man and our last drop of blood. This is a war bound to end in the defeat of the Pakistan army.’’
Despite his comments, the roughly 10,000 Pakistani militants and 1,500 foreign fighters are seen as unlikely to stand and fight. Instead, they will probably do as they have done in other parts of the northwest: Avoid conventional battles and launch guerrilla attacks on stationary troops or long supply lines.
Accounts from residents and those fleeing yesterday suggested that the roughly 30,000 government troops pushing into the region from three directions were facing much tougher resistance than they saw in the Swat Valley, another northwestern region where the army defeated the insurgents earlier this year.
“Militants are offering very tough resistance to any movement of troops,’’ Ehsan Mahsud, a resident of Makeen, a town in the region, said in the town of Mir Ali, close to the battle zone. He and a friend arrived there early yesterday after traveling through the night.
Mahsud said the army appeared to be mostly relying on air strikes and artillery against militants occupying high ground. He said the insurgents were firing heavy machine guns at helicopter gun ships, forcing the air force to use higher-flying jets.
The militants control roughly 1,275 square miles of territory, or about half of South Waziristan, in areas loyal to former militant chief Baitullah Mehsud, who was killed in a US missile strike in August. His clansman Hakimullah Mehsud now leads the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, or Pakistani Taliban Movement, an umbrella organization of several Islamist militant factions seeking to overthrow the secular government.
Officials have said they envisage the operation will last two months, when winter weather will make fighting difficult.
A brief army statement said 60 militants had been killed, along with six soldiers, since Saturday. It said the military had secured high ground close to Razmak, where the army has had a base for several years, and destroyed six militant anti-aircraft gun positions among other gains.
A resident in Wana - the main town in South Waziristan and in the heart of Taliban-held territory - said the insurgents had left the town and were stationed on the borders of the region, determined to block any army advance.
“All the Taliban who used to be around here have gone to take their position to protect the Mehsud boundary,’’ Azamatullah Wazir said by telephone yesterday. “The army will face difficulty to get in there.’’
As many as 150,000 civilians - possibly more - have left in recent months after the army made clear it was planning an assault, but as many as 350,000 could still be in the region. The United Nations has been stockpiling relief supplies in a town near the battle zone.
Senior government official Tariq Hayat Khan said the government was not expecting to establish camps for those fleeing the fighting because most would be living in second homes, with relatives or in rented accommodation in towns outside the tribal region.