Khyber OperationsPosted: May 9, 2015
The 16 December attack on Army Public School (APS) Peshawar had the fingerprints of militant elements holed up in Khyber Agency. These people belonging to Tehreek Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Lashkar-i-Islam (LI) and Jamat-i-Ahrar had been badly bruised in Khyber I operations launched by Pakistan Army to clear the agency of anti-state elements. Mangal Bagh of the LI (now injured and hiding in Afghanistan) had offered sanctuaries to those evicted from North Waziristan Agency (NWA) as a result of Operation Zarb-i-Azab. Khyber I had been halted in December after sufficient area had been cleared and the insurgents had been effectively weakened. It was hoped the remaining clearing could be done through political means. This proved to be a false hope. The trail of the perpetrators of the APS massacre led the intelligence agencies to Khyber Agency. Khyber II was launched to smash the terrorist sanctuaries in Khyber Agency. Peshawar Corps wanted an additional infantry division for the purpose. GHQ responded by milking the existing resources to create an ad hoc Division comprising nine battalions organized into three brigades, complete with brigade and divisional headquarters. Khyber II was conducted under the overarching framework of AlMizan campaign along three axes. One of the axes of advance was along Bara River, which is one of the two rivers flowing in the heart of Khyber Agency. The other one is the Chora River. River Kabul flows between the area of Shalmanis and Mullagoris and separates the Khyber Agency from Mohmand Agency. The united drainage of the Rajgal and Maidan valleys becomes the Bara River in Dwa Toi in central Tirah. The Bara valley attains an elevation of 5,000 feet at Dwa Toi and sinks to 2,000 feet at Khajorai. The Surghar range, the elevation of which is from 6,000 to 7,000 feet, separates the Bara from the Bazaar or Chora valley whilst the Torghar, an equally lofty range, separates it on the south from the Aka Khel and Orakzai country joined by the Khyber stream. The Bara River eventually falls into the Kabul opposite Nisatta in Charsadda, after passing within 2 miles of Peshawar. The Army was provided a foothold by the pro-government Zakakhel tribe located in the East. This allowed the government forces to debouch into the area of the Sepah tribe. Zakakhels had actually asked the Army to let them fight against their tribal enemy by providing them with arms and ammunition. Fearing the worst from an extended tribal warfare, the Army decided to take action themselves. Due to ancient blood feuds, bunkers had been dug on the intertribal boundaries. Arms and ammunition had been ferreted into an extensive network of tunnels. Some of these arsenals had been cached during the days of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Some of the armament was actually legal as the tribes were allowed to maintain qoumi aslaha (tribal arms) for legitimate self-defence against hostile tribes. The initial advance by the infantry units met with hostile and stubborn resistance. The tribesmen knew their area like the back of their hand and could counter attack at will from behind the ridges and up the mountain paths. The attackers made good use of the heavily forested area to appear suddenly in groups of 25 to 35 men and fire a hail of bullets, inflicting casualties before disappearing as quickly as they appeared. It took time for the units to familiarize themselves with the new rules of the game. It didn’t take them long to find out that they had to quickly clear the ridgelines (8000 feet and above), surround the militants and cut them off from their base of operations and severing their supply lines emerging from Dreiwand village and the kidney ridge (6 km x 2 km) dominating the Bara River Valley. They could drive them out but had no way of stopping them from making good their escape into Afghanistan because there are no Afghan check posts on the Durand Line. Special Forces were used at places to spearhead the infantry operations to quickly clear the area. Air support in form of the helicopter gunships didn’t prove very effective, since the bomb line separating own troops from the enemy was difficult to discern and would often result in blue on blue casualties. More effective were the ground fire base employing tanks, mortars and rockets. The baktar shikan antitank missiles were effectively used to destroy bunkers and reinforced structures. Men operated with minimum personal equipment and replenishment was man-packed or delivered on animal transport mules and locally hired donkeys. Khyber II operations took Pak Army into unchartered territory, where government troops had never gone before. Tirah Valley traditionally had been a no-go area. The units moved quickly, so as not give the fleeing tribesmen respite but despite their best efforts could not catch them any of them alive, injured or dead. The tribesmen had also skilfully deployed improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Typically an IED was 10-15 kgs of explosive in a pressure cooker or a water cooler, actuated by pressure switches. There was no evidence of IEDs triggered remotely with mobile phones. One reason for this could be an absence of mobile coverage in the area. It has been reported that tribesmen were using ICOM vhf radio sets purchased from the open market in Peshawar and Lahore for the purposes of communication. Once actuated the IED kills the person stepping on it and can also take at least another person in the vicinity. Reportedly at least 600 IEDs had been deployed in the area. Bomb disposal squads have been able to defuse at least 596 of these and combat engineers have blown up a number of tunnels. The clearing operation in Khyber Agency is only the beginning. The next step would to hand over the area to FC and the civil administration will have to resume their role in maintaining law and order in the area. Government will have to undertake long-term rehabilitation projects.