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Pakistani Offensive Seen As Sparing Taliban Factions

A Pakistani soldier stands by ammunition seized during a military operation against militants, in the of town of Miran Shah, North Waziristan on July 9, 2014.

The ongoing Pakistani military offensive in North Waziristan was sold as an effort to eliminate all terrorist operations in Pakistan, which have cost the lives of tens of thousands of civilians and military personnel in a decade of unrest.

But a month after its launch, the operation, dubbed Zarb-e Azb, appears to be only aimed at dislodging the militant factions involved in attacks in Pakistan, while sparing those attacking neighboring Afghanistan.

Days after the offensive began in the North Waziristan tribal district, doubts were raised about this selective approach. The BBC reported that security personnel were removed from a section of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border to allow favored militants to cross into Afghanistan.

A Pakistani soldier looks at a training center of militants seized in North Waziristan.
A Pakistani soldier looks at a training center of militants seized in North Waziristan.

Though media and security experts remain skeptical of such accusations, Afghan authorities have formally accused their neighbors of targeting the “bad” Taliban who attack their forces while sparing the “good” Taliban that do the same in Afghanistan.

Kabul sees the Afghan Taliban's powerful military arm, the Haqqani network, as the main faction being spared in the Pakistani offensive.

Haseeb Siddiqi, a spokesman for Afghanistan’s intelligence agency, the National Directorate of Security, told journalists on July 23 that Haqqani network leaders had left North Waziristan two weeks before the launch of Zarb-e-Azb.

"No international terrorist is targeted in this offensive," he claimed.

But Pakistan continues to deny all such allegations.

"The action is against all – repeat all – terrorist," Pakistan’s Foreign Secretary Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhry told journalists on July 24.

Kabul's relentless finger pointing at Islamabad is not without reason. For years, Pakistan resisted Western and Afghan pressure to move against the Haqqani network in their North Waziristan stronghold. The faction's leader, former anti-Soviet guerilla leader Jalaluddin Haqqani, has been an ally of the Pakistani military since the 1970s, as has his family.

An influential Pakistani lawmaker, who requested anonymity, told RFE/RL's Gandhara website that the North Waziristan offensive is not going to target the Haqqanis or other "good" Taliban factions.

"The time is critical and the army does not want to lose its longtime allies and assets--the 'good' Taliban,” he said.

Hafiz Gul Bahadar, the local leader of the Haqqani network in North Waziristan, is pegged by many observers as one of the "good" Taliban leaders whose forces have largely been spared in the offensive.

Bahadar has been eerily silent since the beginning of the offensive and his fighters have offered little resistance to Pakistani troops despite revoking his peace agreement with the government and warning about stiff resistance in May.

Sailab Mehsud, a journalist who has worked in Datta Khel, a North Waziristan region considered a stronghold of Bahadar and the Haqqanis, said he did not see any signs of militants during his June visit, though he says he saw large number of militants during past visits.

He said that the militants have either been shifted across the border or gone underground.

The key targets of the operation appear to be the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, the East Turkistan Islamic Movement, and the remnants of Al-Qaeda. Most of these groups have claimed responsibility for major attacks carried out in Pakistan in recent years.

But a breakaway faction of the TTP lead by Khan Said Sajna may now be seen as "good Taliban" after Sajna parted ways with the hard-liners in May.

Despite launching numerous large-scale offensives against the militants in the tribal areas during the past decade, the Pakistani military has failed to kill or capture Taliban leadership in significant numbers, though many of them were killed in U.S. drone strikes. Operation Zarb-e Azb appears to be following the same pattern.

North Waziristan's refugees in Khost, Afghanistan.
North Waziristan's refugees in Khost, Afghanistan.

North Waziristan's civilians are paying a high price for Islamabad's tactical maneuvers. More than 600,000 of them have been displaced to neighboring regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan. In scores of interviews with RFE/RL’s Radio Mashaal since the beginning of the offensive, they have been very critical of the military's actions and the government's failure to help them.

Pakistani columnist Saleem Safi warns that their grievances might provoke more violence.

"This fire might spread from Waziristan and reach the havens of Islamabad," he said.