Pakistan launched a ground offensive against insurgent strongholds near the Afghan border on Monday after evacuating nearly half a million people from the region, the army said. The action is the most significant escalation of a two-week long operation to root out armed groups trying to overthrow the government.
The ground campaign is the second phase of a long-awaited operation against armed groups in the North Waziristan tribal area, a lawless, mountainous stretch of land in northwest Pakistan. The military announced the operation on June 15 but has mostly limited its tactics to airstrikes while giving hundreds of thousands of people time to pack up their belongings and leave for safer areas.
The U.S. has long pushed for Islamabad to go after groups that use the area as a safe haven from which to attack targets in both Pakistan and Afghanistan.
But for years Pakistan has said its forces were too strung out battling armed groups in other areas of the northwest to go into North Waziristan. The military is also believed to have been reluctant to launch the operation without political support from the civilian government. Until recently Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had been pushing for negotiations over military force as a way to end the years of bloodshed caused by the insurgents.
The army began a house-to-house search in Miran Shah, the main town in North Waziristan, the army statement said. It said nearly 15 fighters were killed in the initial ground advance. The town is also the headquarters for a number of different groups such as the Pakistani Taliban. Al-Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban also have a presence in North Waziristan.
The operation began days after insurgents attacked the main airport in the southern port city of Karachi, killing 26 people. The 10 attackers also died in the roughly five-hour siege that underlined how vulnerable the country's institutions have become.
The attack of the country's busiest airport became a turning point in the government's willingness to negotiate with the armed fighters. A week after the attack, the military announced its troops were starting the North Waziristan operation.
Pakistani forces killed 376 insurgents during the first 15 days of the offensive, the statement said, adding that 17 soldiers also died. North Waziristan has always been a challenging area for journalists to access, but the operation has made it even more difficult to independently verify reports of casualties.
Mansur Mahsud, from the FATA Research Center which analyzes the tribal areas in northwestern Pakistan, said they had been receiving reports that many insurgents had left for Afghanistan or into the more remote mountainous areas in the northwest after the airstrikes. But he said a ground offensive was still necessary to clear the area.
In the past, critics have accused Pakistan of playing a double game, supporting or tolerating some armed groups it sees as useful in maintaining influence in neighboring Afghanistan, while going after other insurgents that attack the Pakistani state. The military has said that this operation will go after the fighters equally, but many question how aggressive they will be.
The operation could take three to four months, and it isn't likely to quell the insurgency across the country immediately, said Mahsud. Armed groups also have a presence in places such as Karachi and Punjab province as well as other parts of the northwest.
But over time, Mahsud said the offensive will significantly weaken the insurgency by denying fighters a place to headquarter their organizations and train new recruits.
"It cannot end militancy 100 percent in Pakistan, but it can have a significant effect," he said. "Once this area is cleared, the militants are forced to shift to Afghanistan or the mountains."
About 468,000 people have poured out of North Waziristan, flooding the nearby Pakistani areas of Bannu and Dera Ismail Khan in anticipation of the ground offensive. An additional 95,000 went to Afghanistan, the United Nations reported.
The Pakistani army has already conducted several military operations in the tribal badlands along the Afghan border, including 2009 offensives in the scenic Swat valley and in South Waziristan, the onetime headquarters of the Pakistani Taliban.
The Pakistani Taliban is a loose network of several local groups who want to overthrow the country's government in a bid to install their own harsh brand of Islamic law. In their decade-long deadly campaign of bombings, shootings and other attacks, they have killed thousands of Pakistanis.
The government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has been trying to negotiate a peace deal with the insurgents ever since he took office last summer. The operation has effectively ended prospects of any such move in the near future.
The Associated Press