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Pakistan Has Forces, Equipment For Taliban Assault: U.S.

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -- Pakistan has mobilized enough forces and equipment to launch a long awaited ground offensive against Taliban militants in their South Waziristan stronghold near the Afghan border, U.S. defense officials said on October 4.

Washington sees a concerted push by Pakistan to eliminate Taliban and Al-Qaeda "sanctuaries" in its territory as the key to turning around a faltering U.S.-led war in Afghanistan.

Pakistan has cited shortages of helicopters, armored vehicles, and precision weapons in putting off a Waziristan assault, but U.S. officials said they believed the army was sufficiently equipped to act.

"We would assess that they have plenty of force to do the job right now," said one of the officials, who has been closely monitoring Pakistani preparations for the offensive.

The U.S. officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of discussing Pakistani military planning.

Pakistan has amassed troops around Waziristan, imposing a blockade to try to choke off Taliban supplies. Before an anticipated ground assault, the army has increased artillery fire and the CIA has stepped up attacks using drone aircraft armed with missiles.

Pakistani military spokesman Major General Athar Abbas said two divisions, of up to 28,000 soldiers, were in place, enough to take on an estimated 10,000 Taliban.

While declining to discuss force levels, a U.S. defense official described the Waziristan deployment as "significant" and said he did not expect any additional reinforcements.

"You might see some troops moving but they would probably be rotating. I think they're going to maintain about the same strength that they have there now," the official said.

Washington believes the Pakistanis will have to "clear and hold" the rugged, mountainous territory to crush militants loyal to the late Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud.

Baitullah was killed in a U.S. missile strike in August. U.S. intelligence agencies believe his successor, Hakimullah Mehsud, may have been killed soon thereafter in a firefight with rivals, leaving the Taliban in disarray.

Allied with Al-Qaeda, Mehsud's group has mostly been fighting against Pakistani forces but also sends militants to join the battle against U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.

Al-Qaeda Sanctuary

Appearing on CNN, White House National Security Adviser James Jones pointed to Al-Qaeda "sanctuaries" in Pakistan as "the problem, the next step" in the fight against the group.

Washington hopes expanding U.S.-Pakistani military ties "will lead to a campaign against all insurgents on that side of the border," Jones told CBS's "Face the Nation." He said such a "strategic shift...will spill over into Afghanistan."

Analysts say Islamabad has so far only been acting against militants that directly threaten its power, like Mehsud's Taliban, while leaving alone some of the groups leading the fight against NATO in neighboring Afghanistan.

U.S. officials see the Pakistani army's offensive against the former Taliban bastion in Swat, 80 miles (128 kilometers) northwest of Islamabad, as a sign that the country's political and military leaders have learned from past missteps.

"I think they're determined to not make the mistake of withdrawing [from Swat] before the government forces are able to come in and backfill, and do the hold and build functions of counter-insurgency," the official said.

U.S. officials acknowledged Pakistani troops need more armored vehicles and night-vision devises to protect themselves against improvised explosive devices, the most lethal weapon used by the Taliban against American forces in Afghanistan.

"But the lack of that equipment does not mean they cannot conduct successful military operations. It might mean that it would be a little more difficult, that the logistics would be a little trickier. But it doesn't mean they can't pull the trigger if they want," said one of the defense officials.

Another U.S. military official said an assault by ground forces in Waziristan "can still be effective" despite some shortages, adding that the Pentagon was trying to free up helicopters and other equipment for Pakistan "as soon as possible."

The Pentagon has sought permission from Congress to transfer used military hardware from Iraq to the Pakistani army but American lawmakers have so far balked at the request, citing concerns that Islamabad could use the equipment against India.

Washington is also securing some equipment through third governments but the effort is moving slowly, officials said.