ISLAMABAD — As Operation Zarb-e-Azb, the military operation to clear the Pakistani Taliban (TTP) and other terrorists from Pakistani soil, enters what is predicted to be the final stage, experts warn that it may not be so straight forward and the struggle could continue.
For an intensive weeklong softening up phase saw The Pakistan Air Force extensively bombed targets in the Shawal Valley, the last significant terrorist pocket in North Waziristan, in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) bordering Afghanistan where many terrorists are believed to have fled as a result of Operation Zarb-e-Azb, as the mission is known as.
According to a statement by the military's Inter Service Public Relations (ISPR) media branch, Pakistan head of the PAF Air Chief Marshal Sohail Aman met Army chief Gen. Raheel Sharif to discuss the ongoing operation.
Sharif "vowed to eliminate terrorists even from the remotest pockets in the area at all cost" and was assured of "full support" by Aman, who has himself piloted F-16s during missions over the Shawal Valley.
The Army moved in on the ground last Thursday, but there are and encountered pockets of fierce resistance; and Monday saw two casualties, Lt. Col. Faisal Malik and a sepoy/private whose full name was not given.
Author, analyst, and former Australian defense attache to Islamabad, Brian Cloughley, author, analyst and former Australian defense attache to Islamabad, says said the terrain is tough and favors the terrorists.
"Shawal is a dreadful place — for a soldier fighting through, that is. For a guerrilla/militant/terrorist it is ideal country, as there is plenty of cover and airstrikes are difficult because of the ground's folds and ridges. ... The area is sparsely populated and I think most people have fled to comparative safety already, but some of the compounds will remain occupied, and they can expect a hammering."
Air power has previously been were used extensively in support of ground troops, and soldiers of the Air Force's PAF's elite Special Service Wing have been were embedded with troops to designate targets and act as forward air controllers.
In this case, however, author analyst and former Air Force pilot Kaiser Tufail, author analyst and former Air Force pilot, says said they may not be needed.
"I think sending in [Special Service Group] personnel to do the lasing is not required, really, as the aircraft have high resolution sensors that can pick out the targets and lasing can be done autonomously," he said. "There is no adversary air power to be contested, so our aircraft have the freedom of loitering in the area while looking for targets."
He said he also believes that using special forces to independently hunt for targets may not be required.
"I suspect that sufficient real-time targeting information is available, so there is no point infiltrating special forces at great risk. Imagine what might happen if these infiltrators are apprehended by the terrorists. That will be a great blow to the morale," he said.
One major problem the military might face is that the terrorists could flee and escape. Though there is no question that the army could be beaten back, many terrorists may flee, and this is perhaps the biggest problem the military could face.
"As pressure increases, and the [chief of Army staff] is determined that it will, then the militants will escape to Afghanistan and the Afghan Army will not be able to do anything at all to intercept them," said Cloughley.
"The US may be able to mount a few more drone strikes," but targeting will be difficult, he said. but it has probably been impossible to plant devices on these people, so the drones won't target well. "They will probably target any groups of people carrying weapons, which of course will mean killing ordinary [if somewhat combative] tribesmen," he added.
Though the Shawal Valley has been the stronghold of Gul Bahadur, a warlord formerly considered pro-government, a June 6 drone strike believed carried out by the US is claimed to have killed nine men of the Haqqani Network.
Efforts to finally drive out the TTP, its allies and affiliates have been overshadowed by recent exchanges of fire between Indian and Pakistani forces along the Line of Control that divides the mountainous province of Kashmir between them, and the Working Boundary that forms the border just south in parts of Punjab province.
A suspected terrorist rocket attack from the Afghan side of the border killed four Pakistani soldiers and injured four others in the Akhandwala Pass on Monday. ISPR claimed the terrorists are claimed by ISPR to have been killed by counter fire.
Claude Rakisits, nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council's South Asia Center, said this "will create further tension between Kabul and Islamabad following President [Mohammad Ashraf] Ghani's recent accusations that the Pakistan government was not doing enough to stop Afghan Taliban attacks in Afghanistan.
"Moreover, he accused Islamabad of allowing the Afghan Taliban to hold large meetings in Pakistan in the wake of the selection of Mullah Mansour as the new leader of the Taliban following the revelation that Mullah Omar had died two years ago," he added.
"As far as the Afghan government is concerned, these developments go against the spirit of the latest bilateral agreement to work together in fighting terrorists on both sides of the border."
He says despite the general success of Operation Zarb-e-Azb the TTP and other terrorists "are not yet a spent force. And this is the message that they want to convey to the Pakistan authorities and the public", he said.
"There is no doubt, however, that the TTP and its allies have been degraded, dispersed and their network severely weakened. Nevertheless, in many ways by pushing the TTP and its allies across the border as a result of the on-going military operation, Pakistan now has a much more difficult task in trying to give the TTP the final blow, at least in North Waziristan", he added.
As the recent assassination of Punjab Home Minister Col (retd) Shuja Khanzada shows "defeating terrorism in Pakistan still remains a work-in-progress."