Pakistan Seizes Insurgent Stronghold on Afghan Border

March 3, 2010

By Zahid Hussain | The Wall Street Journal

DAMADOLA, Pakistan—Pakistani forces have seized a key al Qaeda and Taliban stronghold along the border with Afghanistan that once served as a hideout for Ayman al Zawahiri, second-in-command to Osama bin Laden.

The capture of Damadola, a district in the Bajaur tribal region, is a major success in Pakistan’s counterinsurgency campaign. The area had long been dominated by insurgents operating on both sides of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.

Pakistani forces seized the scenic district late last month, after several days of fierce fighting that Pakistan said left more than 75 foreign and local militants dead. Pakistan’s military took reporters to the site, which is surrounded by snow-capped mountains less than five kilometers from the Afghan border, for the first time Tuesday.

“It was the main hub of militancy where al Qaeda operatives had moved freely,” said Maj. Gen. Tariq Khan, the regional commander.

A complex of caves and fortified compounds made it more difficult for the Pakistani forces to dislodge the insurgents.

“They had occupied the ridges. There were 156 caves designed as a defensive complex,” said Gen. Khan, who is head of the Frontier Corps responsible for Pakistan’s counterinsurgency campaign in the region.

Gen. Khan said his forces have cleared the area to the Afghan border and that the campaign against the insurgents there was in its final stage. He said the development would help the U.S.-led troops fighting the insurgents across the border.

Tribesmen in the area have formed militias to defend their villages and have vowed to to back the military in fighting the militants. “We will not let the Taliban to return to our villages,” said Sultan Khan, a local farmer.

The Pakistani army first mounted an operation in Bajaur in August 2008 and claimed victory in February 2009, but violence resumed when the army’s focus switched to Pakistani Taliban fighters in the northwestern valley of Swat and the border region of South Waziristan.

It took almost 18 months for the military to fully dislodge the insurgents. But the army’s hold remains tentative, with top insurgent commanders escaping to surrounding areas. Damadola is a strategically important region that offers access to Afghanistan, Pakistan’s northern district of Chitral, the main highway to China and to Swat.

Pakistani military officials said the area was also used by Mr. Zawahiri and other senior al Qaeda commanders. A large mud compound on a hilltop is believed to once have been the hideout of Mr. Zawahiri, one of the world’s most-wanted terrorists, with a $25 million U.S. bounty on his head.

“He has been spotted here by the local residents in the past,” said Col. Nauman Saeed, a local army commander.

The Egyptian doctor narrowly escaped when missiles fired by a drone operated by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency struck a house in Damadola in January 2006. According to officials, he and other al Qaeda operatives had attended a dinner there but had left just before the attack.

The latest military success comes as Islamabad mounts a crackdown against Afghan Taliban hiding in the country, indicating a more-aggressive approach in dealing with the insurgents.

On Tuesday, the Pakistan Taliban confirmed that a senior commander of the group, Mohammed Qari Zafar, was killed in a suspected American missile strike last week in the North Waziristan tribal area. Mr. Zafar’s death was reported earlier by Pakistani intelligence officials.


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