ISLAMABAD — The Pakistani military is setting its sights on the Taliban’s remote sanctuary after nearly two weeks of big bombings across the country, as hundreds flee the Afghan border region each day before what promises to be the army’s riskiest offensive yet.
With the first snows of winter less than two months away, the army has limited time to mount a major ground attack. The U.S. is racing to send in night vision goggles and other equipment. The Pakistani military insists it’s sealing off supply and escape routes, forcing the militants to rely on goat paths.
The army has tried three times since 2001 to dislodge Taliban fighters from their stronghold in South Waziristan, part of the lawless tribal area along the border. All three previous attempts ended in negotiated truces that left the Taliban in control.
This time, however, military spokesman Gen. Athar Abbas said there will be no negotiations for fear any deals would be seen as a failure and could jeopardize gains won last spring when Pakistani soldiers wrested control of the Swat Valley, elsewhere in the northwest.
“If we fail, everything is rolled back,” Abbas said.
Failure would also deal a humiliating blow to government security forces. A series of assaults against government installations, including the army’s general headquarters, has shown the Taliban along the mountainous border and their allies in the heart of the country are bolstering an alliance capable of challenging the Pakistani state.
The U.S. says the results of the South Waziristan campaign will also help determine the success of the faltering American war effort in Afghanistan. Militants use the Waziristan region as a base from which to launch attacks across the border — and beyond.
“This region is at the heart of the struggle against al Qaeda, the Taliban, and other global jihadi movements. It is a lawless sanctuary for extremists and would-be militants of every shape, size, and color,” said Evan Kohlmann, whose U.S.-based NEFA Foundation follows terrorist groups.
“It is perhaps the only place on earth where a mujahedeen commander from Uzbekistan can plausibly establish a hardened base of operations, staffed primarily by like-minded fighters of Turkish, Chinese, Danish, and German extraction,” Kohlmann said. “Most of the jihad training camps frequented by foreign nationals and featured in al Qaeda and Taliban terror propaganda videos are located in either North or South Waziristan.”
Foreigners require special permission to enter tribal areas. Many Pakistani journalists from other parts of the country are at risk in areas controlled by militants.
Abbas said the assault will be limited to slain Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud’s holdings — a swath of territory that stretches roughly 3,310 kilometers (1,275 square miles). That portion covers about half of South Waziristan, which itself is slightly larger than Delaware.
The plan is to capture and hold the area where Abbas estimates 10,000 insurgents are headquartered and reinforced with about 1,500 foreign fighters, most of them of Central Asian origin.
“There are Arabs, but the Arabs are basically in the leadership, providing resources and expertise and in the role of trainers,” he said in an interview from the heavily fortified garrison town of Rawalpindi, where last weekend insurgents mounted an assault against army headquarters.
The army is preparing for the array of guerrilla tactics the Taliban are likely to employ, including ambushes, suicide attacks and improvised explosive devises.
“We are shaping the environment, isolating the target. We are blocking all entry and exit points, denying them availability of provisions, fuel and ammunition, forcing them to rely on goat tracks to resupply,” Abbas said.
Despite sometimes rocky relations with the Pakistani military, the U.S. is trying to rush in equipment that would help with mobility, night fighting and precision bombing, a U.S. Embassy official told The Associated Press.
“If we could deliver things tomorrow, it would be here,” said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity because the issue is politically sensitive.
In addition to night vision devices, the Pakistan military has said it is seeking additional Cobra helicopter gunships, heliborne lift capability, laser-guided munitions and intelligence equipment to monitor cell and satellite telephones.
While Abbas was evasive about the timing of the offensive, he told the AP that it will begin with a ground assault against insurgent positions before winter snows block mountain roads.
“We have to come in before the snow,” Abbas said. “It will start in the form of a conventional operation to push them out and regain space.”
Once the offensive has started, a harsh winter and heavy snows can work to the army’s advantage by driving fighters out of their unheated mountain hideouts, he said.
In no mood to wait, truckloads of families are fleeing their homes.
Amnesty International said Friday that its research teams in the area report 90,000 to 150,000 residents have fled South Waziristan since July, when the military began a long-range artillery and aerial bombardment in the region. The group faulted the government for failing to prepare adequate refugee camps.
Although the military has been hitting targets in South Waziristan for the past three months, it waited until two weeks ago to say it would definitely go ahead with a major ground offensive into the region.
What followed was a rash of major bombings that killed 175 people and demonstrated the militants’ ability to attack cities across the county.
In the latest bombing, three suicide attackers, including a woman, struck a police station in the northwestern city of Peshawar on Friday, killing 13 people.
In cities rattled by the recent bombings, residents condemn insurgents while bemoaning what they see as a weak government unable to end the terror.
“Our inherent weaknesses, corruption, and inability to govern the country are now exposed fully. It’s total chaos all over the country,” said Saima Ahmed, a 33-year-old bank employee in the southern city of Karachi. “The government should … come down heavily on the terrorists for once and for all.”