New Refugee Wave Expected Pakistan Prepares Offensive on Taliban Stronghold

Two million people fled the Swat Valley during this summer's offensive against the Taliban. Now a new exodus is expected as the government prepares to step up its fight against the extremists. Thousands of people have already left their homes and after Thursday's multiple terror attacks, the expectation is that the military will soon move in.
A Pakistani police officer checks the documents of a tribal villager, who is fleeing the tribal area of Waziristan.

A Pakistani police officer checks the documents of a tribal villager, who is fleeing the tribal area of Waziristan.

Foto: Ishtiaq Mahsud/ AP

Pakistani fighter jets and helicopters have been launching repeated attacks on Taliban positions in the extremist-dominated South Waziristan region. Every day the military spreads news of its latest successes: More Taliban have been killed during the latest attack, their houses have been destroyed.

But Waziristan, a barren mountainous region in northwestern Pakistan, is notoriously difficult to control militarily. Bordering on Afghanistan, the region is considered a haven for the Taliban and members of the terrorist network al-Qaida. About 10,000 extremist fighters are thought to be holed up in the area. The United States would like to extend its anti-terror campaign into the region but it has already encountered massive criticism of its drone attacks in Pakistan. They were regarded as violating the country's sovereignty.

So it is up to the Pakistani government to control the area and it plans to soon turn the isolated attacks into a major offensive -- including a ground offensive. Pakistan's Interior Minister Rehman Malik said the government was "determined" to send the army into South Waziristan. Politicians and military leaders had already decided to adopt such an approach back in June. They would "fight until the last Taliban had been killed," officials stressed unanimously. Malik stressed, however, that it was still unclear when the attacks would begin -- it is a decision that has to be taken by the head of the army.

Military Plans Spark New Exodous

The threat of a military campaign has alarmed the local population, prompting many to flee South Waziristan. "So far, more than 90,000 people have left this region and have settled in the safer places like Dera Ismail Khan and Tank," Shahab Ali Shah, chief administrator of South Waziristan, told the newspaper Dawn. He only had figures for August but he said the series of recent attacks in Pakistan have served to fuel fears of an imminent military attack. There had been a "new exodus," he said. It is estimated that around half a million people live in South Waziristan, but there is no accurate demographic data.

On Thursday morning a series of attacks shook the country, killing at least 39 people. Militants attacked three security targets in Lahore, including a police training center, while car bombs went off in the northwestern cities of Kohat and Peshawar. The army responded with bombing sorties and artillery attacks on South Waziristan.

"Life here is becoming increasingly difficult, we expect war could break out anytime," Mohammad Shahbaz, a businessman, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "Even without war we have problems. The military is patrolling everywhere and there are controls on every street. It is getting more difficult by the day to get hold of food and other everyday goods." He added that it was obvious that the military had moved in as more tanks and soldiers were visible in the area.

Mohammad Hashim Khan told the Agence France Presse news agency that he was leaving his home in the town of Sarwakai, "because the government is planning an attack on the Taliban." Fearing for his life, he and seven family members left their homes to travel to Dera Ismail Khan.

Desperately Needing a Success Against the Taliban

Over the summer, massive military attacks drove the Taliban out of the Swat Valley where they had taken over power in February with the announcement that henceforth the Sharia legal system would apply. Back then, this was tolerated by the government which also signed a peace deal with the Taliban in a bid to end the terror. But the Taliban continued to target troops and carry out attacks. As a result the government in Islamabad faced a barrage of criticism from around the world that it had conceded to the Taliban. In May the army offensive began in the picturesque valley.

At that time, approximately two million people fled from Swat and only a few of those were able to find accommodation with relatives or acquaintances. Most were housed in refugee camps, where refugees reported food shortages, a lack of running water and no electricity. In the mean time most people have returned to their homes in the Swat Valley.

It is hoped that such a humanitarian disaster can be avoided this time around, an administrative official in Dera Ismail Khan told SPIEGEL ONLINE, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "But when the army attacks begin we expect a mass exodus from South Waziristan. Where do we accommodate and provide for all these people?" The previous group of refugees had all been officially registered and given the necessary assistance. "If there are many more people we have to see how we manage them -- and whether we can manage at all."

President Asif Ali Zardari's government urgently needs to score some success against the Taliban. The radical group has launched several attacks over recent days, showing its strength despite the recent army offensive in the Swat valley. Above all, an attack on the army headquarters in Rawalpindi and the subsequent hostage-taking, which lasted 24 hours, at the heart of power in Pakistan, have exposed the government's weakness. The government says that all these acts of terror have been planned in South Waziristan.

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