KHAR, Pakistan (Reuters) - Pakistani forces have defeated Islamist militants in a strategically important region on the Afghan border and expect to clear militants out of other areas by the end of the year, a commander said on Saturday.
Pakistan’s seven semi-autonomous ethnic Pashtun regions, known as agencies, are sanctuaries for al Qaeda and the Taliban and a victory against them would provide relief for U.S. and NATO forces hard-pressed by insurgents in Afghanistan.
Major-General Tariq Khan, who is commanding military operations in five of the seven agencies, said his paramilitary Frontier Corps (FC) had driven militants out of Bajaur, the smallest of the agencies but a major infiltration route into Afghanistan, after a six-month offensive.
“They have lost. They have lost their cohesion here,” Khan told reporters on a trip arranged by the military to Bajaur and Mohmand agencies. “The resistance has collapsed.”
He said his forces had also largely restored “a reasonable state of stability,” in the four other agencies under his command.
“If you are asking me about five agencies ... I think somewhere by the end of the year or so we would, more or less, be over with the military operations,” he said.
Khan said his forces planned to hand over control of Bajaur, the most northerly of the tribal areas and opposite the Afghan province of Kunar, to government authorities next week.
In 2006, a CIA-operated pilotless drone aircraft fired missiles at a house in Bajaur in the belief that al Qaeda number two Ayman al Zawahri was there. At least 18 people were killed.
Khan said he had no information about Zawahri’s whereabouts but his forces had killed and arrested several Arab fighters.
Officials say more than 1,500 militants were killed, along with about 100 soldiers, during the “Operation Sher Dil” launched in Bajaur in September. There has been no independent verification of that militant casualty estimate.
Hard-pressed militants led by an al Qaeda ally, Faqir Mohammad, this week declared a unilateral ceasefire in Bajaur. Khan said he rejected an offer of talks and went ahead with military operations.
Khan’s strategy appears different to the government’s in the neighboring Swat valley, where authorities struck a deal with Islamists, agreeing to enforce Islamic sharia law, after militants virtually took control of the region in recent months.
Authorities also sealed peace deals with militants in North and South Waziristan agencies, two major sanctuaries for al Qaeda and Taliban militants on the Afghan border where U.S. drones have carried out more than 20 missile strikes since September.
Western countries have expressed concerns over Pakistan’s policy of making deals with the militants, fearing the strategy provides breathing space for militants to regroup and intensify their insurgency against Western forces in Afghanistan.
Army spokesman Major-General Athar Abbas said the military and government had devised strategies to suit different areas.
“There is no single thread that runs across all the agencies ... so one has to deal according to what exactly the situation warrants. That’s why the strategy applied in Swat is different and what is being applied in Bajaur is different.”
Pakistani officials argue that military action against militancy must be backed by political support to reach a lasting solution. “There is no such thing as a military solution. It has to be a political solution,” Khan said.
Writing by Zeeshan Haider; Editing by Robert Birsel