Pakistani army launches operation to clear Rajgal Valley of militants

By Muhammad Ahil

Khyber Agency is shown in this bird's-eye view in April. Pakistani forces have launched Operation Khyber-IV to drive militants out of the remote Rajgal Valley. [Muhammad Ahil]

Khyber Agency is shown in this bird's-eye view in April. Pakistani forces have launched Operation Khyber-IV to drive militants out of the remote Rajgal Valley. [Muhammad Ahil]

PESHAWAR -- The Pakistani army Sunday (July 16) launched Operation Khyber-IV in the remote Rajgal Valley of Khyber Agency in an effort to rid the region of terrorist safe havens.

The operation targets various militant groups, including the "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS) and Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).

Rajgal is one of the last few areas in Khyber that troops have not purged of militants, after years of offensive. Rajgal borders Afghanistan, and control of the valley enables militants to slip back and forth across the border.

Success could benefit all

If troops clean up Rajgal, security benefits will extend across the rest of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and across Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), observers say, adding that troops could curtail militant infiltration along a crucial segment of the Afghan border.

Rajgal is the last key battlefield left in FATA, said army spokesman Maj. Gen. Asif Ghafoor when he announced the launch of Khyber 4 on Sunday.

It is premature to declare a time frame for the operation, he added, describing it as part of Operation Radd-ul-Fasaad, which began in February.

The Pakistani army has notified Afghan forces about Khyber-IV and is hoping that co-ordinated efforts along both sides of the border will annihilate any fleeing terrorists, added Ghafoor.

Gradual progress

The many counter-insurgency operations in Pakistan dating back to 2008 create incremental progress, Peshawar-based FATA analyst Hussain Shaheed Soherwordi told Pakistan Forward, adding that Khyber-IV should be the "last nail in the coffin" for terrorists in Khyber Agency.

Troops conducting operations Zarb-e-Azb and Khyber-I, -II and -III have battered militants for years.

Rajgal matters because militants use it to cross back and forth from Afghanistan, said Soherwordi. "Once such border points are sealed, terrorism will be better controlled," he added, calling Rajgal a threat to KP and FATA.

Being on the verge of cleaning up all of Khyber Agency represents a sea change from 2008, when militants held a third of FATA and KP, according to the Pakistani military.

Rustam Shah Mohmand, a former Pakistani ambassador to Afghanistan, agrees on the value to FATA and KP of chasing militants out of Rajgal.

Rustam Shah had a number of other ideas for making Khyber-IV's success lasting, such as strengthening civilian governance in the area and consulting with tribes before launching more offensives or intelligence-based operations.

Tribe members hail operation

Various tribe members who talked to Pakistan Forward had high praise for Khyber-IV.

"If [militants] lose their home ground, they will run across the border," Landi Kotal-based tribal journalist Ali Shinwari told Pakistan Forward. "They can be hunted down easily once they come out of their bases."

Khyber tribes will support any offensive that brings peace, said Rajab Gul Afridi, a shopkeeper at Karkhano Market in Peshawar. "We've suffered too much," he said. "It's been almost a decade of war."

"We want them out of Rajgal," said Ashiq Shinwari, who operates a cosmetics shop in Karakano Market on the border of Khyber Agency. "We don't need any more bloodshed."

"I haven't been in my hometown in seven years because of these terrorists," said Rajab Ali, who fled from the Tirah Valley to Peshawar and now sells fruit there.

"I'll be happy if they're dislodged from their last stronghold," he said.

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