A day after launching a ground offensive in the Pakistani Taliban stronghold of South Waziristan, the Army said on Sunday 60 militants and six soldiers had been killed.
Eleven soldiers are also injured in the operation, code-named Rah-e-Nijat (Path of Deliverance), which, going by the casualties is facing resistance, though the military said the militants were fleeing the troops advance, leaving behind arms and ammunition.
The long-awaited offensive involving an estimated 28,000 troops began on Saturday morning, following a wave of terror attacks over 12 days by the Taliban and their Punjab-based jihadi allies in mainland Pakistan, including a strike on the Army Headquarters in Rawalpindi and three synchronised attacks in Lahore.
On Friday, Army Chief Ashfaq Pervez Kayani briefed both government leaders and opposition parties on the security situation. Troops began moving into South Waziristan early the next day.
The timing of the offensive also coincided with U.S. President Barack Obama signing the Kerry-Lugar Bill into an Act to provide Pakistan $1.5 billion annually until 2014 in non-military assistance, and an unspecified amount in military assistance.
There were protests in Pakistan over what were described as “humiliating” conditions attached to the security assistance, most importantly from the Army. But the government has accepted the legislation, with a face-saving explanatory note from the U.S. that the conditions do not seek to impinge on Pakistani sovereignty.
Senator John Kerry is beginning a visit to Pakistan on Sunday to give further reassurances on this.
Pressed by the U.S., the Army was mulling the South Waziristan offensive since at least July this year, after the operation in Swat ended.
The Army carried out several softening attacks, with its jet fighters pounding Taliban bases from the air. But until a few days ago, it appeared to be in two minds about a full-scale ground offensive, which is likely to be much tougher than the Swat operation.
Previous military operations in the region ended in peace agreements between the military and tribals, and an operation in 2008 was called off inexplicably.
Aside from the mountainous terrain of the tribal region, the Taliban fighters are estimated at around 10,000, of whom 1,000-1,500 are said to be trained Uzbek fighters.
The Taliban’s local fighters are drawn entirely from the Mehsud tribe, and after the death of Beithullah Mehsud -- whose killing does not seem to have had the predicted adverse consequences on the organisation -- they seem to have rallied under the new leader Hakeemullah Mehsud.
But the wave of terror emanating from South Waziristan proved to be the proverbial last straw. In the current offensive, troops are targeting the Taliban leadership base in Makin, advancing on it from three directions. The military spokesman said on Sunday there was fighting along three axes, with both sides taking casualties.
The military is partially pinning its hopes of success in the operation on weaning away the Ahmedzai Wazirs, the other big tribe in South Waziristan, from the Mehsuds. It is also hoping that militants in North Waziristan will not rush to the side of the Mehsuds.
In a supportive move, the U.S. is sending in military equipment worth about $200 million to assist in the fighting. In an indication of the importance of this operation for the U.S., General David Petraeus, chief of the U.S. Central Command, arrived in Pakistan for talks with the Army Chief.
In reported remarks, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, praised the new offensive, saying it showed the Pakistan military was “very much focussed on also going into the heartland of where the Pakistani Taliban and Al-Qaeda are located and where these [terrorist] plots and these attacks are planned and directed”.
Tens of thousands of the estimated five lakh population living in South Waziristan region have begun fleeing the region.