PESHAWAR: The military has successfully brought to a close a massive offensive in Khyber tribal region, effectively flushing out militants and blocking their crossing points on borders with Afghanistan, according to government and security officials.
But, the officials said, questions remained whether the military gains in the plains of Bara and upper reaches of Tirah valley could be sustained over a long period in the absence of administrative and auxiliary support systems.
The military formally brought Operation Khyber-2 to a close on June 15, significantly enough, on the first anniversary of Operation Zarb-i-Azb in North Waziristan.
Know more: Intense Khyber operation enters last phase
Four days later, Army Chief Gen Raheel Sharif visited the troops in Tirah to take stock of the military offensive and the gains made in the nearly three and a half month long operation.
Knowledgeable sources told Dawn that the military had gained control of strategically important areas, depriving Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan and Lashkar-i-Islam of space in one of their toughest strongholds in the tribal regions. The military, the sources said, had also taken physical control of the three passes from Afghanistan into Tirah – Mzatal, Kandao Gharibi and Dramudrad situated at 7,300 to 9,300 feet altitude above the sea level.
Two of the passes have been physically taken over by the military, while the third is under direct fire power, thus putting an end to any movement through that pass.
But the success did not come easily. The military lost more than 50 men, including officers, in the second phase of Operation Khyber, while another 100 or so were wounded.
“It was not easy,” a security official said, requesting he not be named. “The area was heavily mined,” he said. “There were mines every 15 metres. The mining was done professionally.”
In one single fight for the control of Khyber Sanghar, called the Kidney Ridge by the military due to its shape, the military lost 11 men, including a major. “It was tough,” the security official said.
Officials say that 95 per cent of the area is now under firm government control and that militants hiding in the remaining pockets of Kachkol and Rajgal are being targeted through precision strikes. “There is no way they can get in,” they said.
It is still unclear whether the military will launch the third and final phase of Khyber-2 to seize control of Rajgal and Kachkol valleys or continue to target militants and their hideouts through aerial strikes till winters in the snow-bound area to make it inhabitable for them.
Tirah Valey lies astride the Pak-Afghan border sandwiched between the famous Tora Bora mountains and the plains of Bara which connects with the provincial capital, thus giving it a unique strategic position.
Bara in particular has had security fallout on Peshawar. But the Strategy & Analysis Wing of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s home and tribal affairs department in its quarterly report on militancy noted that there had been a marked improvement in the security situation in the provincial capital.
TIRAH: This narrow tunnel was used by militants to keep people detained by them.—Dawn
The total number of terrorist incidents in Peshawar division, it said, had dropped from 136 in the first quarter of 2014 to 44 in the corresponding period this year.
This made Tirah, a poppy growing area, the main conduit for smuggling of narcotics into Pakistan, turning it into a multi-million rupee trade that officials claim fed militancy.
Thousands of kilograms of contraband drugs and printed receipts of toll tax on hashish by the outlawed LI bear testimony to the fact.
The officials say the control over Tirah has provided the government with an enormous opportunity to extend its administrative writ.
Where have the militants gone?
Tirah had become home to a motley crowd of local and foreign militants pushed out of their safe havens in Swat and rest of the tribal regions, sponsoring and directing attacks in Peshawar and other places.
Mangal Bagh and his fighters, said to be between 200 and 300 in number, have fled the area and are now believed to be in Naziyan district of Afghanistan’s eastern Nangrahar province just across Tirah. He, however, continued to air his evening speech through a powerful FM transmitter from his new home that could be heard in Bara, security officials said. The military’s efforts to jam his broadcast thus seem to have borne no fruit.
The TTP and Jamaat-al Ahrar which had sent reinforcements and formed an alliance with Mangal Bagh have also pulled back and moved to Naziyan.
The officials say that Mangal Bagh has now teamed up with the self-styled Islamic State group to take on the Afghan Taliban.
Seven hundreds of Mangal Bagh’s fighters have surrendered and are currently being schooled at a de-radicalisation centre called Sabawun, in Bara.
“This is the only tribal region where militants have surrendered in such large number,” another security official said.
Amr Bil Maroof, another organisation running a parallel administration in Bara, has also dismantled and surrendered its heavy weapons and its base has been taken over by the administration.
Challenges in sustaining gains in Tirah
One of the main challenges is to clear the remaining part of Tirah, including Rajgal and Kachkol valleys, to effectively put an end to any chance of the militants bouncing back.
But more than that, the major issue is the establishment of civil administration and law-enforcement apparatus in the area to take care of security once the military pulls back.
Government and security officials say the federal government has been approached for recruitment of third batch of Levy force of about 650 men to augment security along with the paramilitary Frontier Corps and Khasadars. This would be in addition to the 1,200 already raised. The Levies would be given a crash training course by the military, they said.
Opening up and mainstreaming of Bazaar Zakhakhel is another challenge for the political administration and security establishment.
The officials said that a summary for the establishment of a tehsil office in Tirah had already been sent to the government for approval. Dismantling of the pro-government organisations in the area would send out a clear signal that there would be no parallel administration, they said.
Published in Dawn, July 3rd, 2015