- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 8, 2009

Pakistan’s foreign minister said a planned new offensive against militants in the lawless badlands on the Afghanistan border will be more ambitious than any other in his nation’s history and that security forces intend to take the area, hold it and integrate its impoverished tribal population into mainstream society.

Makhdoom Shah Mahmood Qureshi told editors and reporters at The Washington Times on Wednesday that Pakistani forces are poised to move into South Waziristan once they receive military resources promised but not yet delivered by the United States.

South Waziristan is one of seven Pakistani tribal zones, a militant-held Wild West that was never pacified by British colonialists nor by the central government after Pakistan’s birth in 1947. Several attempts by the Pakistanis since 2004 to root out the Taliban and al Qaeda from the area have been embarrassing failures, ending in short-lived “peace agreements.”

Mr. Qureshi said the situation had changed since democracy was restored to Pakistan in 2008 and that the government and military were now united against the militant threat.

“We intend to drive them out; we intend to clear the territories of sanctuaries; we intend to hold that ground; we intend to amalgamate that area into mainstream Pakistan,” he said.

“We intend to initiate and allow political activity in that area, which they were denied in the last 60 years. We intend to give the [tribes] their due in social, economic development. We intend to engage with them and we intend to develop those areas.”

Mr. Qureshi, who is in the United States for talks on aid for Pakistan, said the timing for the start of the offensive “will depend on the availability of our resources,” such as night-vision equipment and helicopters. “Now, [the U.S.] wants quick delivery. Give us the resources to move at a faster pace.”

Mr. Qureshi said his country, unlike Afghanistan, does not require U.S. “boots on the ground.”

President Obama is weighing whether to send more American troops to Afghanistan beyond the 68,000 who will be there by the end of the year. On Wednesday, he met with his top foreign policy and national security advisers to focus on the situation in Pakistan.

Mr. Qureshi would not give an opinion about whether more American forces are needed for Afghanistan, but said he thinks Mr. Obama will decide by the end of this month or early next month. He said Mr. Obama should share his decision with Pakistan before it is announced.

The foreign minister, who met with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Tuesday, asserted that despite past disagreements, Pakistan is the “most important ally” in the region for Washington.

“We have been your consistent foul-weather friend,” Mr. Qureshi said, noting Pakistani’s support for the campaign to expel Soviet troops from Afghanistan in the 1980s.

Once again, he said, “Pakistan is going to be critical to your success and failure in Afghanistan.”

The Pakistani people need to be reassured that the U.S. is making a “long-term commitment” to the region and is not going to abandon it as it did at the end of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, he said.

Mr. Qureshi said Pakistan supports and appreciates new U.S. legislation that will give Pakistan $7.5 billion in economic aid over five years. The bill has been approved by Congress, and White House spokesman Tommy Vietor said he expects the president to sign it “fairly soon.”

Mr. Qureshi called the legislation “the first demonstration of engaging with the people of Pakistan” and said it would support urgent needs in education, health and poverty alleviation.

However, despite the Pakistani government’s public support of the bill, the country’s military and some members of parliament have objected to U.S. conditions as an infringement of Pakistani sovereignty.

Among the conditions - which Mr. Qureshi noted could be waived by the U.S. president - are demands that Pakistan end support for extremist groups and cooperate with the U.S. in efforts to dismantle supply networks relating to the acquisition of nuclear-weapons-related materials.

Mr. Qureshi said the debate was mainly over the language of the bill, which he said his government intends to fully explain to the Pakistan parliament, military and public. He said the bill’s “intentions are good and I think the objectives are good.”

“In politics, in legislation, there are compromises,” he said. “Are we on the same page as far as extremism is concerned? Are we on the same page as far as terrorism is concerned? Are we on the same page as far as democracies are concerned? Are we on the same page as far as social development is concerned? … And the answer to that is yes, we are.”

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