The Pakistani government is on the verge of launching a major military offensive in the North Waziristan tribal region after brutal Taliban attacks in recent weeks and the apparent failure of peace talks with the militants, according to a senior Pakistani official.
“It could be any day,” said the official, adding that military plans have been shared with top U.S. officials, who have long urged an offensive.
Planning for the operation comes amid a Pakistan-requested pause in U.S. drone strikes that is entering its third month — the longest period without such an attack in more than two years — and high-level bilateral meetings.
Pakistan’s defense secretary, Asif Yasin Malik, is heading a delegation of security officials in Washington. CIA Director John Brennan quietly visited Pakistan last week, days after Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, head of the U.S. Central Command, held meetings at military headquarters in Rawalpindi.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s national security adviser said cabinet-level consultations on the military option will take place this week. “Dialogue with the Taliban has derailed, and the writ of the state will be established in the region,” Sartaj Aziz told reporters Monday in Islamabad, the nation’s capital.
With 150,000 troops already based in the tribal regions, the senior Pakistani official said the government is prepared to begin a full-fledged clearing operation. “We really don’t have to start from scratch,” the official said.
He said an official evacuation had yet to begin but noted that tens of thousands of residents, who he said were “spooked” by reports of an imminent government attack, had left on their own.
U.S. officials, while hailing the current level of cooperation and saying that they are encouraged by Pakistan’s apparent determination, noted that they have been frequently disappointed in the past. “We’ll believe it when we see it,” said one U.S. official, who like other American and Pakistani officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss diplomatic contacts and military plans.
“We’re not doing it for their happiness,” the senior Pakistani official said of the United States’ urging. Instead, he said, the execution last week of 23 Pakistani soldiers held by the Pakistani Taliban since 2010, along with several recent attacks, including one that killed 19 at a Karachi police station, have turned public opinion against the militants and the sputtering peace talks. That has opened new political space for military action.
In statements Monday, the Pakistan People’s Party, the official opposition in Parliament, said it supported a military offensive. Imran Khan, head of the opposition Movement for Justice party, indicated that military action was inevitable. “Talks would have still been a better option,” he said, but he called on the government to “take political ownership of any military operation” and fully inform the nation.
Khan, whose northwestern power base borders the tribal regions and who has been harshly critical of Sharif and the United States, called for the government to begin evacuating civilians from North Waziristan before starting a bombardment of the area, as it did before major military offensives in the Swat region in 2009 and in South Waziristan in 2010.
The Pakistani Taliban — also known by the initials TTP, for Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan — is allied with but separate from the Afghan Taliban that is fighting U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Elements of both, along with the Afghan Haqqani network and remnants of al-Qaeda’s core leadership, are located in North Waziristan.
The TTP’s stated goal is to overthrow the Pakistani government and install an Islamic state based on religious law.
Peace talks were proposed early last fall by Sharif, who took office in June after the first democratic transition in Pakistan’s history. Those talks were canceled when a U.S. drone strike in November killed TTP leader Hakimullah Mehsud. The action led to one of the frequent downturns in U.S.-Pakistani relations, as Sharif’s government accused the Obama administration of trying to undermine negotiations.
In late December, as it prepared to relaunch the talks, the Islamabad government asked the Obama administration to hold off on further drone attacks and made clear that it was prepared to begin a military offensive if negotiations with the militants did not succeed.
The senior Pakistani official cautioned that the government has not formally declared the talks a failure and said that “it’s politically important for the government to take this to its logical conclusion.” At least one round of talks had taken place, with no discernible results, when the execution of the Pakistani soldiers occurred. In recent days, the government has carried out several retaliatory airstrikes that it says killed dozens of militants in North Waziristan.
The 2010 South Waziristan offensive began with air bombardment, followed by waves of ground troops, although the official cautioned that the terrain and militant locations in North Waziristan are somewhat different.
The official said government targeting would “not discriminate” among the TTP, the Haqqani network and other militant groups in North Waziristan, including al-Qaeda.
U.S. officials have long attributed Pakistan’s reluctance to attack there to ties between its intelligence and Afghan groups, such as the Haqqani network, as well as Pakistan’s desire to keep its options open in Afghanistan, should U.S. efforts there fail and the Afghan Taliban return to power.
Pakistan has repeatedly denied the charges and said it would take action that suited its own strategic priorities.
Even as the United States and Afghanistan have accused Pakistan of failing to prevent Afghan and al-Qaeda militants from crossing the border, Pakistan has accused U.S. and Afghan forces of failing to go after TTP forces, many of whom fled to Afghanistan during previous Pakistani offensives.
Both the United States and Pakistan have touted the advantages of a hammer-and-anvil strategy, with coordinated operations along the border to stop fleeing militants in both directions.
But as the two nations’ relationship has ebbed and flowed over the years, that level of cooperation has never come to pass.
Now, with the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan well underway, the United States no longer has the military resources in eastern Afghanistan to adequately patrol the border, the senior Pakistani official said.