The fighting in Pakistan's insurgency-plagued Northwest Frontier Province and the neighboring tribal areas has intensified over the past 24 hours. The Pakistani military has launched attacks against Taliban hideouts in the tribal agencies of South Waziristan, Mohmand, and Bajaur, while heavy fighting was reported in the settled districts of Swat, Bannu, and Hangu.
Pakistani military grinds it out in Swat, Dir, and Buner
The Pakistani Army continues its offensive against Mullah Fazlullah's Taliban fighters in Swat and the neighboring districts of Dir and Buner. The military claimed 39 Taliban fighters and 10 soldiers were killed during heavy fighting in Swat. Twenty-four additional soldiers were wounded. The latest casualties raise the tally to nearly 1,400 Taliban and more than 100 Pakistani soldiers killed since the operation was launched in late April. The military claims no civilians have been killed during the fighting.
Heavy fighting continues in the Kabal and Peochar regions, two areas considered to be Taliban strongholds. The military claimed to have cleared these two regions more than a week ago, and had hoped to surround and kill or capture the Swat Taliban leadership. So far, not one of the 21 senior Swat Taliban leaders who have had bounties placed on their heads has been killed or captured. The military has claimed to have killed off the Swat Taliban's second and third tier leadership.
In Dir, a tribal lashkar, or militia, claims to have surrounded more than 300 Taliban fighters. The lashkar was raised after the Taliban killed 49 civilians in a suicide attack in a remote mountainous region in the northern district. Reports said the lashkar numbers in the thousands, thus greatly outnumbering the Taliban. But the lashkar is reported to have killed only 17 Taliban fighters and has failed to overrun Taliban positions in the week since the lashkar was formed.
The military said it would support the lashkar but has only sent attack helicopters to target Taliban positions and has offered to send elements from the poorly armed Frontier Constabulary to assist. The attack helicopters wound up striking in the villages that formed the lashkars.
Fighting continues in Bannu, the gateway to Taliban country
The military said another 21 Taliban fighters were killed during clashes in the Jani Khel and Baka Khel tribal areas, which border North Waziristan. This would mean that more than 150 Taliban fighters have been killed since the operation in Bannu was launched on June 9.
If an operation were to be launched in North Waziristan, Jani Khel and Baka Khel would need to be secured, as these two areas sit astride the main road into the Taliban-controlled tribal agency. Al Qaeda is said to have held its executive shura in Jani Khel up until 2007, while senior al Qaeda and Taliban leaders were known to meet there. More than 600 Taliban fighters from North Waziristan are said to have poured into Jani Khel to battle the military.
Punitive strikes launched in Mohmand
The military has also launched air and artillery strikes against the Taliban in the Mohmand tribal agency. Dawn reported that a full-fledged operation is underway in Mohmand, while Daily Times said the strikes were in retaliation for an attack on a military convoy. Ten Taliban fighters and two soldiers were reported killed in the clashes.
After an operation in March of this year, the Pakistani military claimed Mohmand was cleared of the Taliban; the Taliban continue to mass for company-sized attacks on military camps in the region, however.
Taliban targeted in Bajaur
The military also launched attacks against the Taliban in the Mamond and Charmang regions in Bajaur. "Militants had used Mamond and Charmang for regrouping after having signed a peace deal with the government," Dawn reported.
The military and the Taliban signed a ceasefire in March after a months-long battle ground down both sides. Two of the conditions of the ceasefire required the Taliban to end patrolling in the region and to turn over Bajaur Taliban leader Faqir Mohammed. Instead, the Taliban have continued to bear arms in Bajaur, and Faqir Mohammed remains free. He appeared in Swat with senior Taliban leaders and government officials after the government agreed to a ceasefire and vowed to impose sharia, or Islamic law.
Taliban respond in Hangu
The Taliban struck back against the military just one day after punitive strikes targeted the Taliban in Arakzai and Hangu killed a pro-jihadi cleric and scores of civilians. On June 12, the Taliban killed one soldier and three policemen in a roadside bomb attack in Hangu.
The military does not appear to have sustained an operation in Hangu and Arakzai; there have been no reports of follow-up strikes or ground operations. The June 11 attacks in Arakzai and Hangu cause a major backlash by civilians, who forced police to return to their barracks after civilians rioted and protested in the streets.
More punitive strikes in South Waziristan
The military also appears to have launched airstrikes against Baitullah Mehsud's forces in South Waziristan. A report in Geo News indicates that strike aircraft and heavy artillery hit the village of Makeen, Baitullah's home town. No casualties have been reported.
North and South Waziristan are widely thought to be the next targets of the government's campaign against the Taliban. But with operations underway in Swat and Bannu, and the military unwilling to release additional troops from the Indian border, the military is tied up and additional forces may not be available for some time. The government also has to contend with more than two million internally displaced persons who fled the conflict in the Swat Valley and Bajaur. The tribes in South Waziristan are also said to be leaving the area.
Baitullah is said to be the primary target for an operation in Waziristan. The military and the government have not indicated that the notorious Haqqani Family, or Mullah Nazir, or Hafiz Gul Bahadar, would be targeted. The Haqqanis have been described as a "strategic asset" to the military, and Nazir and Bahadar are considered "pro-government" because they have not been inclined to strike at the state. The real intentions of Nazir and Bahadar were disclosed earlier this year when they joined forces with Baitullah, formed the Council of the United Mujahideen, and vowed to battle the Pakistani military.