US vacates checkposts ahead of SWA operation
The US-led Nato forces vacated more than half a dozen key security checkposts on the Afghan side of the Pak-Afghan border just ahead of the major Pakistan Army ground offensive (code named: Rahe Nijaat) against Taliban-led militants in the volatile tribal area of South Waziristan, it is learnt.
It is feared that the American decision will facilitate Afghan Taliban in crossing over to Pakistan and support militants in striking back at the Pakistani security forces in the troubled tribal area.
Sources close to the NWFP government and military strategists involved in the planning of S Waziristan operation told The News over the weekend that the Americans vacated eight security checkposts on the Afghan side of the border just five days before the Army operation. Four of these close to South Waziristan including one each at Zambali and at Nurkha, and four in the north in the area of Nuristan where American forces recently came under violent attacks by the militants.
Latest reports indicate that the Americans have also removed some posts close to North Waziristan, which could encourage even more Afghan Taliban fighters to cross over to the Pakistan side. This has raised many eyebrows in government and military circles with points being made about “conflicting interests” and dubious American designs.
The NWFP government, civilian and military officials in the provincial capital have been astonished by this move and more so intrigued by its timing. Alarmed and concerned about its likely adverse affect on the military operation in S Waziristan where the Pakistani troops reportedly comprising 28,000 soldiers are expected to face fierce resistance from the heavily armed Taliban-led militants, the NWFP government recently alerted the relevant authorities in Islamabad about it.
Pakistan has now taken up this matter with the Americans and conveyed its serious concern about vacating the checkposts at this crucial juncture. Notably the security checkposts on the Afghan side of the border are already almost a third of what Pakistan has on its side.
Recent communication intercepts by Pakistani intelligence outfits have revealed that Taliban commander in Nuristan Qari Ziaur Rehman has invited TTP leader Maulvi Faqir Mohammad, former deputy of late Baitullah Mehsud, to come to Nuristan and operate from there if he finds space in Wazristan shrinking.
Experts believe the American move of vacating security checkposts on the Afghan side close to Pakistan’s border could undermine the military action by Pakistan Army. While on one hand it could offer an easy escape route to some militants, it is believed that this would facilitate movement of Afghan Taliban into Pakistan side to join hands with the al-Qaeda-backed local Taliban and other locals as well as foreign militant groups against the military action there.
Some observers see it as a tactical move by the US to ward off pressure from its own forces in Afghanistan that have been under severe attacks by the Afghan Taliban. Hence they want to provide them unhindered passage to Pakistan side, as it would help shift the main theatre of war from Afghanistan to inside Pakistan. Americans themselves have been saying that 70 per cent of area in Afghanistan is out of their control.
The Pakistani Tabiban in S Waziristan backed by al-Qaeda are joined by a large number of foreign militants including a battalion of Uzbeks, Tajiks, Chechens and Arab fighters. According to military sources the toughest resistance is expected from an estimated 1,500 battle-hardened Uzbek fighters, equipped with highly sophisticated weapons. “The Uzbek fighters face a do or die situation with the all-out army action in the hostile mountainous area,” a senior government representative maintained.
The uninterrupted flow of sophisticated arms and funding to the foreign militants in S Waziristan has also lured many criminals to join hands with them in challenging the writ of the state, defence experts say. The presence of various foreign and local militants in the rugged terrain of South Waziristan is estimated at between 15,000 and 20,000.
Officials in the military and civil bureaucracy are cautiously optimistic about the outcome of the operation. “Either these militants will run to Afghanistan, settled areas or stand and fight to the end,” is how one key NWFP government representative summed it up.
A seemingly more realistic view from a key office holder in Peshawar is: “We are half way in containing insurgency and hopefully by end of the year major military operations will be over and 2010 will be the year of consolidating the gains made in recovering the lost ground.”
Whatever the outcome, observers believe that operation in the Taliban stronghold of South Waziristan became inevitable. “It became imperative to go for a military operation in South Waziristan to regain the lost space that has been used as training ground for planning and executing attacks targeting key security installations of Pakistan including the GHQ,” the Army spokesman Major General Athar Abbas said earlier shortly after the launch of the operation.
Despite several attempts on Sunday The News was unable to get an official version from the Pakistan Army Spokesman Major-General Athar Abbas on this alarming development. However, when the US Embassy Spokesman Richard Snelsire was contacted by this correspondent and his attention was drawn to the question of vacated checkposts he remained non-committal. When a confirmation was sought and he was asked what had prompted this move, Snelsire said he had no clue about it. “I do not have information on that, and that is outside our purview,” he noted, adding that he had not seen any reporting on that.