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Pakistani Military Faces Decision On North Waziristan

A Pakistani soldier at the site of a market destroyed in fighting between pro-Taliban militants and security forces in North Waziristan.
One of Pakistan's most wanted militant leaders is back. And with the return of Hakimullah Mehsud and his brash rhetoric, comes decision time for the Pakistani military.

Months after reports of his death in a U.S. drone strike in mid-January, Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) leader Mehsud resurfaced in a video this week in which he threatens to stage attacks on U.S. soil. The video's authenticity has not been confirmed.

The video -- along with signs that a suspect in a failed car bombing last weekend in New York's Times Square received bomb-making training in Waziristan -- is likely to give new impetus to Washington's demands that the Pakistani military conduct a major operation against Islamist radicals in North Waziristan.

That, combined with rising pressure domestically to establish security, might be enough to convince Islamabad to launch an all-out military offensive in the restive tribal region.

The region was already considered a main hideout of fighters loyal to Afghan Taliban commander Jalaluddin Haqqani and his son, Sirajuddin Haqqani.

The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and its various splinter groups, as well as Al-Qaeda-affiliated Arab extremists who are constantly in the crosshairs of remotely piloted U.S. drones, are also there.

But Islamabad has successfully resisted fighting in the district, even as it mounted large-scale operations in six remaining districts of the Federally Administrated Tribal Areas (FATA) since 2008 -- a 500-kilometer stretch of territory along Pakistan's western border with Afghanistan.

Game Changer?

Senator Afrasiab Khattak, a lawmaker and leader of the governing Awami National Party in the northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province bordering FATA, argues that countering any militant groups operating out of the tribal areas requires going after all of them. "We have yet to see similar actions in North Waziristan, in Orakzai agency, in Mohmand agency," he says.

"In [the tribal district of] Bajaur, we have seen some effective action recently when [the village of] Damadola was captured and some other important militant center was captured by the Frontier Corps and Army," Khattak says. "But we have yet to see this activity expanding into all the tribal areas."

The rumored presence of Mehsud and most of his fighters from the TTP, who apparently fled an ensuing incursion into their South Waziristan stronghold for safe haven in North Waziristan, could be the game changer.

The TTP fighters have already joined up with their extremist allies from Pakistan's eastern Punjab province, known as the Punjabi Taliban, who derive from militant organizations previously active in Indian-administered Kashmir. Some of them come from Sunni extremist organizations that are waging a sectarian war against Shi'a across Pakistan. Most are also reportedly closely linked to Al-Qaeda-affiliated Arabs and were reportedly instrumental in some high-profile attacks against Pakistan's military.

Even while no single leader appears to be leading the extremists in North Waziristan, its status as a militant headquarters appears to be attracting new recruits from the West. Five young Americans are currently on trial in Pakistan for allegedly trying to receive terrorist training to strike American targets. The defendants were arrested late last year as they traveled to Pakistan and attempted to contact extremist militants operating out of North Waziristan.

Militant Jungle

While going on the offensive against domestic security threats -- particularly with the added benefit of appeasing foreign allies -- might seem a logical step for Islamabad, entering North Waziristan comes with immense challenges.

First off, some analysts suggest the ultimate goal is the political and economic development of a marginalized region where extremists have long enjoyed free rein. A military operation, they say, is not necessarily the best way to achieve those goals.

A spate of recent attacks against the estimated 15,000 soldiers in North Waziristan highlights the military dangers lurking in the region. Last week's killing of a kidnapped former Pakistani intelligence official, Khalid Khawaja, by the little-known Asian Tigers militant group shows the degree to which militant groups have morphed in North Waziristan.

Khawaja traveled to the region in late March along with another former Pakistani intelligence official, Sultan Amir Tarar, and Asad Qureshi, a British filmmaker of Pakistani origin. The group had contacts with the militants, and the two former spies were known for their public support of the Taliban.

But the Asian Tigers chose to kidnap them and eventually kill Khawaja to underscore their hostility to the Pakistani military. Pakistani media reports suggest that the Asian Tigers is a front name for the Punjabi Taliban, whose strength in North Waziristan poses a critical dilemma for Islamabad.

Asad Munir -- a retired brigadier general and former Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) agency station chief in Peshawar -- suggests that the military will nevertheless go into North Waziristan, but only after completing its ongoing campaigns in South Waziristan and Orakzai tribal agencies that flank North Waziristan's nearly 5,000-kilometer territory. "They will not launch an operation at the present moment because they are engaged in Orakzai [where] a lot of force has [recently] been pumped in," he says.

"And they have to go after Tirah [valley in Khyber district] from where normally the terrorist come and attack the cities," Munir says. "So they are going to go for North Waziristan, but it may take some time."

Muddled Policy

Time is arguably of the essence in Pakistan's six-year-old struggle against extremists. In Islamabad, analyst Khadim Hussain suggests that Pakistan can only defeat militants if their networks are broken simultaneously in the tribal areas, the Punjab, and the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province between the two regions. "I think there is a need of using different intelligence networks -- different state or military-intelligence networks to cut off their networking points," he says, adding that this will make it easy "to take them on."

Islamabad-based author Zahid Hussain says the military's attitude against the militants changed drastically over the past few years after jihadis declared a war against the state and society in Pakistan. He suggests that Islamabad is still soft, however, on groups that don't directly attack Pakistani forces and cities but instead concentrate on sending fighters to Afghanistan, for example.

Hussain suggests that Pakistan's complicated struggle against extremists needs a clear direction. Islamabad also still needs comprehensive policies to build on its successes in Swat and South Waziristan while at the same time broadening its struggle to all militant groups operating on its soil, he says. "At one point, we were patronizing every militant group and they were supposed to serve Pakistan's regional interest, but that has changed completely," Hussain says.

"The problem is that [the government] has not very clearly defined the policy," he adds. "They have to define national security policy. They have to define counterterrorism policy. Where is the counterterrorism policy?"

In the absence of a comprehensive counterterrorism policy, Pakistani military might opt to rely on U.S. drone strikes, which authorities publically oppose. Public-opinion surveys, however, suggest that such strikes have the quiet support of the people who actually reside in the regions under militant control -- meaning the use of drones can't be ruled out.

Munir, the former Pakistani official, says that drone strikes in North Waziristan have proved to be the best option in the absence of boots on the ground. "They [drone strikes] have broken the backbone of Taliban structure, their basic organization," he says.

"They have denied them free movement. They have prevented them from attacking -- crossing over to Afghanistan. They are very, very effective and I think with minimum collateral damage."

But Munir says that no amount of warfare will ultimately resolve the long-standing problems of Pakistan's impoverished western border region with Afghanistan.

"If there is no strategic development program and it is not implemented quickly and in a transparent way, there are chances that these elements may emerge again," he adds. "They may regroup. And this time if they come, they are going to be more dangerous."

RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal correspondent in Islamabad Riaz Gul contributed reporting
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    Abubakar Siddique

    Abubakar Siddique, the editor of RFE/RL's Gandhara website, is a journalist specializing in coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is the author of The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key To The Future Of Pakistan And Afghanistan. ​

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