More military operations against the militants have taken place in Khyber Agency than any other part of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata).
Still the need was felt recently for undertaking one more operation with the code-name Khyber-4 in the remote Rajgal valley bordering Afghanistan.
As the name suggests, three military operations in the series Khyber have already been completed in the Khyber Agency’s Bara tehsil and Tirah valley. Rajgal valley, located right on the border with Afghanistan in the laps of the majestic, snow-covered Spinghar mountain range, was spared the last time due to specific reasons. Not any more as Pakistan seems hard pressed to block the infiltration of the Afghanistan-based militants belonging to the Islamic State terrorist group, commonly known as Daesh, from the eastern Nangarhar province into the Tirah valley and onward into Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and beyond.
Khyber Agency experienced a number of smaller military operations even before the four code-named Khyber. The first one undertaken in Bara tehsil was named in Pashto as “Daraghlam” (Here I come!) which was warning the enemy that am coming after you. In 2009 a new operation in continuation of the first one was launched in Bara with the code-name “Biya Daraghlam” (Here I come again!).
In between the two, the Pakistan Army launched action named “Sirat-i-Mustaqeem” (The Righteous Path) in Bara primarily targeting the Lashkar-i-Islam militant group headed by Mangal Bagh. This action was taken following the kidnapping of six women and several Christians in two separate incidents in Peshawar. The Lashkar-i-Islam was blamed for these incidents and the military action was aimed at destroying the group’s installations, offices and private prisons in Bara.
Yet another military action with an interesting Pashto name was “Khwakh Ba De Sham” which means “I will sort you out!” It too focused on Bara, which is adjacent to Peshawar and has been used as a centre by militants and criminals to run their anti-state and anti-social activities.
The Khyber-4 was launched on July 14. Already, the military is claiming to have killed several militants and destroyed their hideouts. Like all previous operations undertaken by the military against the local and foreign militants in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata) and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) since 2003, airstrikes heralded the action in Rajgal before the launch of a ground offensive to take physical control of the valley. The airstrikes are conducted to disrupt the supply lines of the militant groups, damage their installations and demoralise their fighters.
It is understandable that like previous military operations no timeline for completion of Khyber-4 has been given by the military. As it is part of the wider anti-terror campaign Radd-ul-Fasaad, Khyber-4 could continue as long as it takes to secure the Pak-Afghan border, complete the ongoing task of border management and block the attempts by the militant group Islamic State, or Daesh as it is commonly known, to infiltrate Pakistan from its bases in Afghanistan.
It won’t be the end of military operations as Kachkol valley, sited close to Rajgal, would also have to be cleared of militants through a similar ground offensive in future. In fact, the Rajgal and Kachkol are often mentioned as the last hideouts of the militants in Fata and these cannot be left untouched if the military had to complete its mission of denying space to the militants in any part of Pakistan.
As the military spokesman Major General Asif Ghafoor pointed out, Rajgal valley spread over an area of 256 square kilometres with eight mountain passes and heights ranging from 12,000 to 14,000 feet above sea level was the most difficult terrain for carrying out a military operation. It appears to be a massive military campaign as a full division of the Pakistan Army equipped with artillery and backed by the Pakistan Air Force and army aviation is involved in the fighting. The soldiers would have to advance into the valley slowly and cautiously as the militants could have planted mines to target the troops.
As expected, Afghanistan has reacted negatively to Pakistan’s proposal about deployment of Afghan forces across the border in a bid to intercept the militants fleeing the Rajgal valley due to the action against them by Pakistan’s security forces. This has happened in the past as well because neither former President Hamid Karzai nor the incumbent Ashraf Ghani agreed to deploy troops on their side of the border to stop the militants from entering Afghanistan.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had made such a request to Karzai in June 2014 when Pakistan launched the Zarb-e-Azb military operation in North Waziristan and was rebuffed. It is another matter that Karzai and his ministers and military commanders later accused Pakistan of pushing the militants into Afghanistan and creating a serious problem for their government. Such a situation could arise again as the Khyber-4 military operations moves ahead and forces the militants in Rajgal to escape to Afghanistan to seek refuge in areas beyond the control of the Afghan government. Some of these militants could even end up playing into the hands of the Afghan and Indian intelligence agencies.
The Afghan government has its own reasons for refusing to cooperate with Pakistan in the latter’s operations against the militants. It wants Islamabad to go after the Pakistan-based members of the Afghan Taliban and Haqqani network as well instead of targetting only those militants who are fighting the state of Pakistan.
There is no instance of an agreement over the use of the hammer and anvil tactics by the Afghan and Pakistan armies, or by the US-led Nato forces deployed in Afghanistan, to squeeze the militants through coordinated attacks on both sides of the Durand Line border even though all sides maintain that they are committed to fight the terrorists of all persuasions. Such an approach would be useful for both Afghanistan and Pakistan, but their huge mistrust of each other has prevented them from undertaking any coordinated military operations.
In fact, influential US Senator John McCain during his recent visit to Islamabad and Kabul as the head of a five-member bipartisan delegation of the US Senate secured an agreement from the leadership of the two countries for conducting coordinated military action on their side of the border. However, there isn’t much chance that it would be implemented as some Afghan leaders have criticised President Ashraf Ghani for agreeing to this arrangement as they believe it would benefit Pakistan alone. The reassurance that the US would monitor implementation of this agreement also failed to assure the Afghans critical of the proposed arrangement. The first opportunity to give this agreement a try was the Khyber-4 operation, but Afghanistan shot it down by criticising Pakistan’s military action in Rajgal instead of offering any cooperation through deployment of troops on its side of the border.