The Pakistan military began a long-awaited offensive in South Waziristan along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border over the weekend. The region has served as the principal base of operations for an amalgam of terrorist groups, including al-Qaeda, the Pakistani Taliban, and groups formerly based in the Punjab, including Jaish-e-Mohammed and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi.
The Pakistanis launched the operation on Saturday following a string of major terrorist attacks across the country over the last two weeks, including a 20-hour hostage stand-off at the Army’s General Headquarters in Rawalpindi. If the militants were hoping to deter the Army from moving forward with the Waziristan offensive, they clearly failed. In fact, the attacks over the last two weeks appear to have stiffened the resolve of the military and unified their ranks to go after the militants, even those whom previously were viewed as assets against Pakistan’s historical rival, India.
The security forces are blocking escape routes into Afghanistan and using artillery to attack militant positions in the north, south and east of the area of operations and fighter jets to target other militant strongholds. Pakistan’s Air Chief Marshal Rao Qamar Suleman was in the U.S. last week to attend the unveiling of the first tranche of F-16D fighter aircraft for the Pakistan Air Force. The first batch of F-16s is scheduled to arrive in Pakistan in June 2010. Although many have argued that the F-16s would likely only be used in war time against India, the Pakistani military says the jets have played a critical role in targeting militants since they can deliver precision strikes from long-range.
The Pakistani senior military leadership may be finally awakening to the fact that many of the Punjab-based militant groups who had previously focused on attacking India are now a serious threat to Pakistan’s own stability. The militant groups themselves are trying confuse the Pakistani public by declaring they are “ready to defend Pakistan’s borders and fight India.” The hope is the Pakistani public does not fall for such propaganda and recognizes that, in fact, these militant non-state actors are really gunning for the Pakistani state. It will take a long-term effort to root out extremism and terrorism from Pakistani society, but successful operations in Waziristan will point the country in the right direction.
The battle for Waziristan will be one of the most decisive not only for Pakistan’s own fight against extremism but for the safety and security of the broader international community. A front-page story in today’s Washington Post details how a rising number of westerners are traveling to the Afghanistan-Pakistan border areas to attend terrorist training camps. The most recent and serious case for the U.S. has been the arrest of Abdullah Zazi, an Afghan national who has been resident in the U.S., who had travelled to Pakistan last year for explosives training and was allegedly planning to carry out an attack on New York’s mass transit system.