Pakistani fighter jets bombarded Taliban hideouts in the country’s troubled northwest yesterday, killing at least 30 in the fourth airstrikes since peace talks stalled, in what analysts say is a surgical operation to reassert the military’s dominance.
The early morning attacks on hideouts in the North and South Waziristan tribal districts were the latest in a series of airstrikes by the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) since Thursday last week that have killed more than 100 alleged militants.
Experts say the strikes are designed to give the military the upper hand if talks eventually resume and do not believe the army is prepared to launch a full-fledged operation in the area.
Independent verification of the death tolls in the strikes has not been possible, since it is difficult for journalists to enter the area and civilian administrators are reluctant to comment.
“The death toll from the airstrikes [yesterday] has risen to 30,” a security official in Peshawar said, updating the earlier death toll of 15.
The focus of yesterday’s attacks, which also involved helicopter gunships, was mostly the mountainous Shawal valley and Datta Khel in North Waziristan, and Sararogha in neighboring South Waziristan, the officials said.
Helicopter gunships were still continuing shelling in both North and South Waziristan, considered bastions of Taliban and al-Qaeda militants, they added.
Residents said hundreds of families have fled their homes.
“People are leaving the area after a deadlock in peace talks,” a resident of Miranshah said by telephone requesting anonymity.
They are taking shelter with relatives in Peshawar and other cities further away from the border, residents said.
Earlier this month Pakistan had entered into talks with the Taliban aimed at ending their seven-year insurgency.
However, the militant group continued carrying out attacks on a near-daily basis, with dialogue suspended after the insurgents claimed last week they had executed 23 kidnapped soldiers in a northwestern tribal region.
Since then the PAF has conducted a number of airstrikes in the volatile tribal regions.
Retired general and security analyst Talat Masood said the military may be attempting to strengthen its position if talks eventually resume.
“The peace process, if at all it continues now, would be from a position of strength and not from a position of weakness. For some time it looked like [the Taliban] had the upper hand. These attacks change that,” he said.
Despite the show of force, experts say the Pakistani military is not set to expand the operation with boots on the ground.
Such a move would require much planning with help from US and Afghan forces on the other side of the border, as well as a contingency plan for the massive upheaval of refugees, Masood said.
“In all probability they will engage in limited, but forceful or targeted strikes for some time to weaken and push the militants,” he said.
“Targeted strikes will continue in the near future also, they will neither end nor expand,” said Imtiaz Gul, another security analyst.