- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 6, 2009

ANALYSIS:

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan | Despite continuing suicide attacks in Pakistani cities, Pakistani forces poised to attack the Taliban and al Qaeda in a key tribal redoubt along the Afghanistan border have a better chance of success than in the past because of months of successful CIA drone attacks and growing opposition to the militants among tribal groups.

Islamic extremists on Monday again showed their ability to infiltrate Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad, where a suicide bomber attacked the headquarters of the U.N. World Food Program, killing five local employees. Such tactics, however, have increasingly alienated Pakistanis including in the tribal area along Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan.

On Saturday, Turkistan Bhittani, a tribal leader who has broken ties with Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the main Pakistani Taliban group, said U.S. drone attacks are “absolutely correct” and that he hopes for a successful military offensive despite the presence of “10,000 foreign militants” in the opposition camp.

Mr. Bhittani, who made his comments to the BBC Pashto language service, was referring to the area in South Waziristan controlled by the Mehsud tribe of Baitullah Mehsud, the Taliban leader who was killed recently in a suspected U.S. drone strike.

Mr. Bhittani’s public support for unmanned aerial strikes was a first for any major Pakistani militant commander.

The TTP alliance is responsible for the recent offensive in the Swat Valley region that came within 60 miles of Islamabad and for attacks throughout Pakistan, such as Monday’s bombing and the December 2007 assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.

Such divisions among tribes and subtribes throughout the border regions of Pakistan are likely to become more significant as Pakistani security forces take on the TTP.

“There could not be a more conducive time to target TTP and al Qaeda for the security forces,” said Gul Rahman, a researcher at Gomal University in Dera Ismail Khan city, just outside the Taliban stronghold of South Waziristan.

“Because already a large number of people, whose number [is] running into hundreds of thousands, have left South Waziristan due to fear of fighting. But more importantly, many of these people whom I came across told that they greatly appreciate the drone strikes and offensive against Taliban and al Qaeda. So a kind of anti-militant public opinion has formed in South Waziristan, which should be capitalized upon.”

A senior official in Peshawar, the capital of North West Frontier Province, of which South Waziristan is a part, told The Washington Times that an operation would be launched in the coming weeks in the rugged terrain along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.

“All the preparations for the military offensive against Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan and the foreign militants based in South Waziristan have been made. It is up to the military command when to launch the operation, but indications are it would be done soon,” said the senior official, who spoke on the condition that he not be named because he is not authorized to talk to the press.

Successes by Pakistan on its side of the border figure prominently in the U.S. debate over troop levels needed in Afghanistan.

“We hope that will lead to a campaign against all insurgents on that side of the border, and if that happens, that’s a strategic shift that will spill over into Afghanistan,” retired Gen. James L. Jones, President Obama’s national security adviser, said in a television interview Sunday.

Pakistan’s army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, visited Waziristan on Wednesday and spent time with field commanders and troops deployed there.

The offensive is of extreme importance because the area is a bastion for militants, and the future of Pakistan’s counterterrorism war could depend on a successful outcome.

Several attempts to root out the Taliban from South Waziristan since 2004 were embarrassing failures. The attempts forced the Pakistani military to enter into “peace” agreements with militants and to cede territory to the Taliban and foreign fighters.

However, recent attacks by U.S. drones have decapitated the TTP and thrust it into disarray, military analysts say.

An Aug. 5 strike killed Mehsud, the TTP leader of what had become known as the Islamic Emirate of Waziristan. He was succeeded by Hakimullah Mehsud, who appeared in public late Sunday to dispel reports that he had been killed in a gunbattle with a rival.

The new TTP ruler, Hakimullah Mehsud, spent seven hours Sunday with a group of Pakistani reporters, including one from the Associated Press, in which he showed little concern about the upcoming Pakistani offensive.

“We are fully prepared for that operation and we will give full proof of those preparations once the offensive is launched,” Mehsud said.

On the drive to and from the interview, the AP reporter could see fighters taking up positions at key vantage points. Residents said the militants were digging trenches along routes that the army was expected to travel. Drone attacks also killed a top Taliban strategist, Maulana Ilyas Kashmiri, a former commando of the Pakistani army, and numerous Arab al Qaeda operatives hiding in Waziristan.

In the latest successful attack, bombs dropped by drones on Aug. 27 killed Qari Tahir Yuldashev, a leader of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan affiliated with the Taliban and al Qaeda.

It is especially significant that some Taliban groups outside the TTP have vowed to fight alongside Pakistani security forces in the offensive. They include Mr. Bhittani, whose tribe is a key rival of the Mehsud tribe.

There have also been reports that a third powerful tribe in South Waziristan, the Wazirs, has decided not to resist the operation against the TTP in the area.

Pakistani security forces have blockaded the area from the south, while Bhittani tribesmen have helped choke off supplies to South Waziristan from the north.

Pakistani air force jets and helicopter gunships have been targeting militants’ positions in South Waziristan since June.

Despite the favorable conditions, analysts worry whether the security forces can score a verifiable and sustainable victory.

“Only in Swat, one can say the military has been able to break the Taliban stranglehold on the area, but the victory is far from complete despite the displacement of nearly 2.5 million people from their area,” said military analyst Imran Khan.

Lt. Gen. Nadeem Ahmed, a senior commander overseeing preparation for the South Waziristan offensive who also has been in charge of helping those displaced by the fight against the Taliban, said, “It’s going to take months” and possibly beyond the coming winter to defeat the Taliban in South Waziristan. He said the army is now focused on choking off supplies to the Taliban and still lacks “the right kind of equipment” to mount a large ground operation.

Meanwhile, the TTP and its foreign allies — mainly Arabs from the Middle East and Uzbeks from Central Asia — are continuing their attacks. Three suicide attacks late last month killed 28 people in Peshawar and Bannu. The number of TTP militants in South Waziristan who have stayed behind to fight as tens of thousands of people flee is estimated at between 5,000 and 8,000, Pakistani officials say.

Habibullah Khan, a top official in North West Frontier Province, which includes the tribal areas, said there are more than 5,000 Uzbek militants in North and South Waziristan.

The Pakistani government reportedly has decided to name a new governor for North West Frontier Province with extensive experience in the tribal areas. Among those under consideration is retired Gen. Hamid Khan, a former corps commander in Peshawar.

• Anjum Herald Gill contributed to this report from Lahore.

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