- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 13, 2009

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan | Pakistan may launch a new military offensive in a district near the Afghan border where insurgent leaders are believed to have fled to escape a government onslaught against the Taliban in nearby South Waziristan, the prime minister said Saturday.

Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani said the next front may be Orakzai, a district north of South Waziristan in Pakistan’s lawless tribal belt. The government has launched a spate of air strikes there, and the U.N. said Friday that about 40,000 people have already fled the area.

“The operation in South Waziristan is over. Now there are talks about Orakzai,” Mr. Gilani told reporters in televised remarks from the eastern city of Lahore.

Mr. Gilani later backed down from some of those comments, saying “our military operation in South Waziristan is continuing” and stressing that “there have been lots of successes” in the fight there. He did not give a time frame for when the South Waziristan operation would end and one in Orakzai might begin.

The U.S. has long pushed Pakistan to retake spots along the border that have become safe havens for militants. That pressure is likely to intensify now that 30,000 additional U.S. troops are heading to Afghanistan to take on a resurgent Afghan Taliban.

To Washington’s chagrin, Islamabad has focused on groups such as the Pakistani Taliban that threaten its citizens rather than militants who attack U.S. and NATO forces across the border. Mr. Gilani did not indicate a shift in that strategy Saturday.

Mahmood Shah, a former security chief for Pakistan’s tribal regions who has deep contacts in the military, said Pakistan has succeeded in South Waziristan in that it has destroyed much of the Pakistani Taliban’s physical infrastructure, but that it could not ignore Orakzai if it wanted to eliminate the insurgent leadership.

“The Pakistani Taliban train suicide bombers in Orakzai,” he added. “This is the right decision; this is the right move.”

Pakistan’s army launched its ground offensive in South Waziristan in mid-October, saying it was determined to eliminate its top internal enemy in its most forbidding stronghold. The army said it sent about 30,000 troops to take on about 10,000 militants, including many foreign fighters.

The operation has prompted a slew of retaliatory bombings nationwide that have killed more than 500 people. The attacks have continued even as battlefield activities have slowed down.

On Wednesday, the army reported it had killed 589 militants so far, losing 79 soldiers. But none of the top Pakistani Taliban leaders are known to have been captured or killed in the onslaught, and many are believed to have fled to North Waziristan and Orakzai. The latter has been the home base for Pakistani Taliban chief Hakimullah Mehsud.

Access to the tribal regions is severely restricted, making independent verification of such details nearly impossible. The military’s near-daily accounts, however, describe fewer battles, less militant killings, and more routine clearance and holding operations.

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