Operation Zarb-e-Azb, the military offensive in the federally-administered North Waziristan tribal agency, was launched almost a month ago. Pakistan’s Armed Forces have reclaimed much of the agency, killed scores of local and foreign militants, and destroyed several tons of arms and ammo. We recently spoke with Maj. Gen. Asim Bajwa, director-general of the military’s Inter-Services Public Relations, about the operation. Excerpts:
Are reports of terrorist Adnan Rasheed’s arrest true?
We have not said anything as yet. In fact we never even released the information of his arrest.
The government has said that military operations will also be launched in the other six tribal agencies as well as in Lahore and Karachi. The operation in North Waziristan is ongoing. How much of the agency has been cleared so far of militants?
Localities with the largest clusters of militants have already been cleared. One of the main hubs was Miranshah, 100 percent of that town is now free of terrorists and our specialists are working to defuse a few IEDs there. Miranshah is on the axis of the agency, it cuts across the middle. Our operation extends on both sides of this axis. The areas of Mir Ali, Degan and Boya are also cleared. What areas will be tapped next is confidential.
The Armed Forces have set up points where militants can come and surrender. How many have taken up this option?
A total of 32 terrorists—21 in Miranshah and 11 in Mir Ali—have surrendered thus far, the majority of them are from the banned Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan. Let me explain how this works: when the military assault was initiated in Miranshah, we used megaphones to invite those willing to give up. So the initial surrenders were at the identified points. But later, militants began hoisting white flags to signal their surrender. Recently, in Mir Ali, their men waved white cloths during gun battle. Then there are those who made desperate attempts to escape. The first few days after the civilians were requested to evacuate, a large number of militants were apprehended at check posts. They attempted to use fake IDs to get across. The National Database Registration Authority’s mobile vans have been very thorough in verifying identification documents.
You’ve said that the ongoing offensive would target all militant groups, including the Haqqani network. You’ve also said that some militants may have fled from North Waziristan. Is there any intelligence you can share on where these militants may have relocated to?
There might have been some escapes, before security forces encircled the agency. After the area has been strangulated it is not possible for terrorists to flee from there.
Islamabad has repeatedly urged Kabul to track down the Pakistani Taliban chief, Mullah Fazlullah, who is reportedly holed up in Kunar province. Is Afghanistan taking satisfactory measures to comply with Pakistan’s request?
Until now we have no concrete evidence that anything is being done in Afghanistan to address our concerns. Three soldiers, including a captain, embraced martyrdom in Bajaur agency last week when terrorists from across the border came and attacked a security check post and a vehicle. This is a fact. A few days back, in a single day, attacks were directed against us from two of their provinces, Nuristan and Kunar. This just proves that they are not doing anything.
Is Fazlullah still actively controlling the Pakistani Taliban?
Yes he is. According to our reports, he is very much active across the border in Afghanistan. He is directing and leading the few men he has left in Pakistan.
Have any high- or mid-level militant commanders been killed or detained?
We have rounded up quite a few militants. However, the senior-most leadership of the Pakistani Taliban is already in Afghanistan. In fact, it has been there since the past few months now. The operation actually began a few weeks ago, on June 30. Interrogation of those detained is ongoing and we will soon receive more information and leads. The resistance we encountered in Mir Ali was more intense than in Miranshah.
According to press reports, some 30,000 troops are said to be involved in the operation. Is this accurate?
I have not released any details about this. All sorts of numbers are being quoted in the media. All I can say right now is that there are sufficient forces involved. The exact number is sensitive information.
Why hasn’t ISPR released any pictures of the 400 militants killed in the operation?
The media went to the area on the ninth day of the assault. We don’t keep bodies in store after strikes and ground offensives to display to the media. Did any pictures of dead militants emerge from other operations or conflicts around the world? We have all the relevant information and we will share the pictures with the media when the time is right.
The kidnapped son of former premier Yousaf Raza Gilani and the kidnapped son of assassinated Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer were thought to have been in terrorist custody in North Waziristan. Is there any information about their whereabouts now?
We are still engaged. It is a very large agency. This is just the beginning. Saying anything about them would not be right at this moment.
From our July 26-Aug. 9, 2014, issue.