Saturday, May 23, 2009

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan | The Pakistani army appears to be extending its campaign against the Taliban beyond the Swat Valley to Waziristan, according to eyewitness accounts in the southwestern town of Jandola - a step that could strain forces already struggling to reclaim areas closer to the capital.

Residents in Jandola told The Washington Times on Friday that they had seen heavy military convoys moving toward the tribal area for the past few days. Sultan Bhittani, a resident of Jandula, told The Times by phone: “The movement of such heavy troops and military vehicles suggests that a new operation may be launched in South Waziristan.”

President Asif Ali Zardari told the Sunday Times of London a week ago that the current military operation would be extended to Waziristan, the main base for Taliban and al-Qaeda militants in Pakistan. “Swat is just the start and it’s a larger war to fight,” he said.

The reports of a new offensive come as a car bomb exploded close to a movie theater in the northwestern city of Peshawar, killing at least six people and wounding 80 others. At the same time, Pakistani commanders asserted that they have encircled militants in Swat and they took reporters in a helicopter over the main Swat town of Mingora.

An Associated Press reporter on board said he saw little evidence of fighting or air strikes that the Pakistani army claims have killed about 1,000 Taliban and 60 soldiers in the past month.

Nevertheless, Maj. Gen. Sajad Ghani, a senior commander, told the AP that “the noose is tightening around them. … “It’s just a question of time before [Taliban leaders] are eliminated.”

Nearly 2 million Pakistanis have fled the fighting in Swat and the adjacent district of Malakand, according to the United Nations. After Mr. Zardari’s remarks warning of a new offensive in the southwest, about 1,500 families of Mehsud tribesman fled their homes in South Waziristan, witnesses said. The Obama administration has promised more than $100 million in emergency aid for those displaced by the fighting.

While it remains to be seen when a new operation will be launched, some defense analysts question the decision to announce such an offensive while the military is still embroiled in fighting closer to Islamabad.

“They could not open the second front simultaneously,” defense analyst retired Brig. MohammadSaad said. “The president should not have announced launching of the operation because then the element of surprise for militants is no longer there and they would get an opportunity to prepare themselves. … The success of such an operation largely depends on the strategic and tactical surprise.”

Ijaz Khan, a professor of International Relations at the University of Peshawar, agreed that Swat should be stabilized first.

“A new military action in Waziristan would definitely overstretch the Pakistani security forces and their capabilities,” he said. “The security forces would particularly find it extremely cumbersome to trounce Taliban militancy because of operating in two different areas of Malakand and Waziristan that are not only poles apart but also have significantly dissimilar terrain.”

Government officials have not provided a time frame for completing the Swat-Malakand operation. Maj. Gen. Ijaz Awan, who is in charge of the operation there, has said that the government has a plan to stabilize the area after defeating the Taliban. One aspect of the plan, he said, is to form village defense committees to identify remaining militants.

Retired Lt. Gen. Talat Masud, a leading Pakistani security analyst, said he was hopeful that the military was learning from its experiences in Swat and gaining greater proficiency in counterinsurgency “because it is not a conventional war for which Pakistani military is primarily trained.”

Individuals in Pakistan’s civilian administration, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told The Times that the Zardari declaration was meant to discourage Taliban fighters from retreating to the tribal areas to regroup.

A simultaneous offensive in Waziristan could be intended to inflict damage on the overall command and control of the Taliban because the militants’ leaders - such as Tehreek-e-Taliban (TTP) head Baitullah Mehsud and operational chief Qari Hussain - are based in South Waziristan.

However, Gen. Saad said operations already undertaken in Bajaur, Mohmand and Khyber agencies were making it difficult for the militants to move and to recruit reinforcements. He said the army should be given “a free hand along with objectives to attain within a time frame by the government.”

In comparison to densely populated Swat, Waziristan has fewer residents and the risk of civilian casualties would be less acute. It is also believed that many foreign fighters allied with al Qaeda are now based in the region.

With thousands of additional U.S. forces deploying to Afghanistan along the border with Pakistan and also in the southern provinces of Helmand and Zabul, there is still a question about whether they will be able to cope with militants infiltrating from Pakistan, Gen. Saad said. “If an operation is launched in Waziristan, an anvil would be required on the Afghan side so if they are pursued from our side they may not be able to cross over to Afghanistan,” he said.

To launch a military operation in Waziristan while still fighting in Swat, the Pakistani military would also have to shift troops from the Indian border - something it has been reluctant to do in the past. Recently, Army Chief Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani has said that no additional troops would be withdrawn from the eastern border with India.

Any military operation in Waziristan would also have to target Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud. Interior Minister Rahman Malik has said that it is possible to defeat him, but in the past the government stopped short of attacking him out of concerns about civilian casualties among Mehsud tribesmen.

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