Pakistan says it’s ready to launch offensive into last Taliban area

Pakistan’s military said Friday it had completed preparations for an assault on the Shawal Valley in North Waziristan, the last sizeable chunk of turf in the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan that’s still controlled by Taliban insurgents.

A remote valley of craggy peaks, forested slopes and ravines, Shawal Valley is also the final safe haven for the few al Qaida operatives who haven’t fled into adjacent Afghanistan since the Pakistani military began its assault on the North Waziristan tribal area last July.

In a posting on Twitter, a Pakistani military spokesman said that army chief of staff Gen. Raheel Sharif visited front-line military units in North Waziristan on Friday and spoke to troops who had “just successfully completed the preliminary phase” of the operation by securing mountain peaks overlooking Shawal.

Since December, the Central Intelligence Agency also has focused its Pakistan drone campaign on Shawal, targeting Taliban leaders and al Qaida camps, apparently in support of Pakistani air force bombings designed to soften militant bases in the area.

Pakistan publicly condemns the drone strikes as violations of its sovereignty, but U.S. diplomats have conceded privately that most are conducted at the request of the Pakistani military – although Washington has retained the right to conduct strikes against targets it deems a threat without informing Islamabad.

A Jan. 5 drone strike on Shawal killed Ahmed Farouq, al Qaida’s operations commander for India, but inadvertently also killed two Western hostages he’d been holding for ransom, including 73-year-old Warren Weinstein of Maryland, a contractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Another CIA operation in the area in January resulted in the death of Adam Gadahn, 36, a California native who became an al Qaida spokesman and had been indicted in the United States for treason.

The Pakistani military spokesman said “intelligence-based” operations had cut off the Pakistani Taliban faction headquartered in Shawal from its cells in Pakistani cities.

The military’s Inter-Services Intelligence directorate has gained much of its knowledge of militant infrastructure in North Waziristan by exploiting rivalries between Taliban factions, according to retired militants and academic researchers. They spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing security concerns.

They said much of the intelligence used by the military since last July to rout the top faction in North Waziristan had been provided by Khalid “Sajna” Mahsud, the Taliban commander for Shawal.

Angered at being overlooked for the post of Pakistani Taliban chief in November 2013, he provided detailed intelligence against the faction led by Hafiz Gul Bahadur, the top militant commander for North Waziristan.

They said Mahsud had expected to gain leverage in negotiations with the Pakistani authorities, conducted last year through tribal intermediaries; instead, he was handed an ultimatum to surrender unconditionally, which he refused.

The Pakistani military was able to corner Mahsud in Shawal because his betrayal of Taliban colleagues had made it unsafe to leave his stronghold, the ex militants and researchers said.