Mixed results for Pakistan's tribal offensive
Pakistani forces this week wrapped up their largest offensive ever in the semiautonomous tribal region of South Waziristan after 12 days of heavy fighting against Al Qaeda militants and their local supporters.
The Pakistani military says it killed 63 militants and captured 166 others, including 73 foreigners. But Pakistani forces paid a high price, losing 46 military and paramilitary troops. The bodies of two kidnapped officials were found Tuesday.
As the smoke clears, analysts are portraying the once highly touted operation in a mixed light. Pakistan has gained a tactical advantage against the fighters by routing them from lowland village havens into the rugged mountains near the Afghan border. But the fight failed to net high-value leaders and revealed flaws in Pakistan's US-aided intelligence network as well as deep and widespread local support for the foreign militants.
"The scale of the operation, media hype, and the use of force by Pakistan had raised hopes, but [the operation] fell well short of expectations," says Behrouz Khan, an analyst in Peshawar. "The arresting or killing of some Chechens and Uzbeks may carry significance for Pakistan but not for the Americans. They were hoping to get Arabs and top Al Qaeda leaders."
After meeting stiff resistance during the initial March 16 assault, Pakistani officials suggested that their forces had cornered Osama bin Laden's No. 2, Ayman al-Zawahiri. That was later revised to Uzbek terrorist Tahir Yuldash, who officials say escaped from the military cordon in a bullet-proof vehicle. Other militants may have slipped away using newly discovered tunnels. A military spokesman Tuesday also recanted earlier statements that Al Qaeda's intelligence chief was killed in the fighting.
While the operation failed to nab major Al Qaeda leaders, some analysts say it laid important groundwork for future operations. They note that Pakistan has now established a strong presence of 30,000 troops in once off-limits South Waziristan, clearing villages of foreign militants and cutting off their local supply lines.
"Not long ago they were moving freely in Waziristan. The leaders were delivering speeches; their local men were recruiting young, unemployed tribesmen in the name of jihad. Now that is no more, they are not safe anymore," says Latif Afridi, a former legislator from the tribal region.
Official sources say that Mr. Yaldash and his militants are now hiding in the Shawwal Mountains overlooking North Waziristan and Afghanistan's Paktika Province. Other foreign fighters are believed to be hiding in the Shikai and Khamrang ranges.
However, further Pakistani military operations must be weighed against a demonstrated ability by Al Qaeda to inspire counterstrikes across the region. Last week, guerrillas attacked military targets outside Waziristan. The operation also met with nationwide condemnation and demonstrations by major political parties.
"If Pakistan wants to root out extremism there, then it needs to promote a sense of belonging, develop infrastructure, and promote modern education to neutralize the clergy's role and influence," says Mohammad Riaz, an analyst in Peshawar.