Operation Zarb-e-Azb : Shawal Valley– a tale of tough battles
SHAWAL: At 9,400 feet in Makki Ghar, the vantage point in Shawal Valley, the silence is broken by the howl of a breeze running across the valley.
Among the toughest of areas of North Waziristan Agency, the fabled valley was secured by the military last month after the “kinetic phase” of its intensive operation in the region, codenamed Zarb-e-Azb.
Today, the scars of war are apparent with rooftops of several houses still damaged.
“The roofs are the only weak part of these structures,” a senior military official explains to members of the media who were given a tour of the valley recently.
Shawal had a population of 0.15 million people before the operation. But today every single house stands abandoned.
The silence in the valley, owing to absence of people, is overwhelming as a troop of media personnel are taken towards a compound located in the heart of the valley.
Houses are plastered with limestone that reads “cleared” in large letters. The commanding officer explains that houses were booby-trapped by militants with improvised explosive devices (IEDs).
The journey ends at an expansive mud-walled compound located in the heart of the valley.
Outside it seized weapons are aligned symmetrically in a display. They include a Stinger-missile launcher and several rounds of ammunition and weapons mostly of Russian origin.
Scattered on a table nearby are letters and diaries in foreign and local languages. One contains an inventory of how many suicide vests were purchased and how many mines were used.
A photo album recovered includes pictures of heavily armed underage children, a reminder of how the war has spared no one.
The centre of attraction, however, is an American Humvee with names such as Mulla Sangeen and Bilal Fateh inscribed on it. Officials say the vehicle was most probably taken from foreign forces in Afghanistan and brought into Pakistan and will be returned soon.
Inside the compound, there is access to an elaborate underground tunnel system which leads to two large well-kept rooms. They are located 35 feet below the surface and are around 300 metres wide. Officials believe the place was built for a high-value target.
Hard fought victory
Prior to the military operation in Shawal, two separate intelligence agencies said there were around 1,500 to 2,500 terrorists holed up in the valley.
The Khan Said Sajna group and Sheryar Mehsud group, accompanied by over three dozen foreign fighters, were the most prominent of the terrorists who had taken refuge here.
Compounds here have been continuously targeted by drones over the years, of the US and Pakistani variety.
Having deployed air power over the valley, troops were sent in to expel terrorists from this strip of difficult terrain. On Feburary 24, the army’s ninth division was asked to move towards the “zero-line” by Army Chief General Raheel Sharif.
A bloody battle ensued and it wasn’t until March 15 that the military could bring the area under control.
“We lost six men, including a captain, while 24 have been injured,” said Brigadier Shabbir Narejo, who led the military operation. While the bombardment softened up the terrorists, they still gave the military a tough fight.“They were like a well-trained army,” recalls Brig Narejo.
The military said it killed 120 militants and injured around 80 others. But the militants weren’t the only enemy the troops had to look out for. Snow and winter temperatures proved to be a challenge for them.
Keeping militants out
With the operation in the valley over, the challenge now is to make sure that those who fled the area do not return.
While visiting Bibak Top, the last check-post on the Pakistani side, all the other check-posts set up by the military are visible. Brig Narejo explains that they have set up a “water-tight defence”.
When asked if the border was truly secure, Brig Narejo says an attack had just been repulsed Friday morning.