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Pakistan's New Offensive Could Be Drawn-Out Affair

Supporters of hardline pro-Taliban party Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-Nazaryati burn a U.S. flag during a protest in Quetta
Pakistan has launched what it calls a "decisive offensive" against Baitullah Mehsud, a key Taliban leader whom authorities blame for much of the country's militant violence.

On June 19, Pakistani fighter jets bombed Taliban positions in the tribal region of South Waziristan near the border with Afghanistan, AFP reports.

Some 13 militants -- including foreign fighters -- were reportedly killed in a separate air strike on a village near Wana, the administrative headquarters of South Waziristan.

Analysts suggest Pakistan's new offensive could prove to be a long and drawn-out affair due to the region's isolation, tough terrain, and the thousands of motivated and well-trained fighters that Baitullah Mehsud commands.

Expectations of an assault against Baitullah Mehsud's fighters has grown since late April when Pakistan's army launched a major offensive in the Swat Valley and surrounding Malakand region.

Moreover, Pakistan's military is increasingly confirming its role in carrying out air strikes against militants in the region. In the past, security officials have blamed the attacks on unmanned U.S. drones.

Baitullah Mehsud, described by the United States has as a "key facilitator of Al-Qaeda" in Pakistan -- is the is the leader of Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan, a major umbrella alliance of pro-Taliban Pakistani groups.

A Comprehensive, Effective, Decisive Action

Anticipating a full-scale military offensive, Pashtun civilians have been trickling out of South Waziristan villages that are controlled by Baitullah Mehsud's fighters. These displaced civilians are moving toward the relatively safe neighboring districts of the Northwest Frontier Province.

On June 14, after mobilizing and concentrating forces in the area -- as well as blockading parts of Waziristan that are controlled by Mehsud's fighters -- Northwest Frontier Province Governor Owais Ahmed Ghani announced that a "decisive offensive" is under way.

"The government has decided to launch a comprehensive, effective, and decisive action in order to protect our innocent citizens from terrorists and the enemies of Islam and our homeland," Ghani said.

"To this end, the Pakistani Army and other law enforcement agencies have been ordered to utilize all available resources to finish off these killers and murderers."

The first confirmed airstrikes by Pakistan's air force against Mehsud took place on June 13 -- one day after a suicide bomber killed a leading anti-Taliban cleric, Mufti Sarfaraz Naeemi, in the eastern city of Lahore.

Pakistan's military later claimed that airstrikes on the Makeen village of South Waziristan had injured Tahir Yuldashev, the fugitive leader of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.

Yuldashev is thought to command thousands of Uzbek and Central Asian fighters. Pakistani analysts say those Uzbeks and Central Asians form a central component of Mehsud's forces and are at the forefront of the extremist militancy in Pakistan.

Before the new Waziristan offensive was announced, Pakistan's President Asif Ali Zaradi articulated the resolve to confront Taliban fighters, who are now seen as the biggest threat to the state.

"Our brave soldiers, with the help of our citizens, are fighting for the survival of Pakistan," Zaradi said. "The whole nation has risen against the militants. We are fighting people who want to impose their agenda upon our nation by force."

Divide And Conquer

Observers in Pakistan suggest that apart from the government offensive, Islamabad is also trying to encourage other militants to assist them.

Islamabad, for example, is encouraging militant leaders Qari Zainuddin Mehsud and Turkistan Bhittani to take on Baitullah's fighters. Onetime allies of Baitullah Mehsud, the two broke ranks with him and blame him for killing members of their families.

The two now claim to be loyal to Mullah Mohammad Omar, fugitive leader of Afghanistan's Taliban. They command just a few hundred fighters each, but could potentially lure some of Baitullah Mehsud's fighters if he becomes weakened by the current offensive.

Media reports suggest that Pakistani officials are also negotiating with Hafiz Gul Bahadar and Mullah Nazeer. Both lead Taliban groups in Waziristan to the north and south of mountains that are controlled by Baitullah Mehsud.

They had forged an alliance with Mehsud earlier this year, and Islamabad now wants to ensure that those alliances are broken before marching on Baitullah Mehsud.

Pakistani observers are keenly watching Jalaluddin Haqqani, a senior commander of Afghan Taliban and an erstwhile ally of Baitullah Mehsud. It is not clear whether Haqqani is still allied with Baitullah Mehsud or plans to remain neutral.

Similar government offensives in 2005 and 2008 ended when Islamabad decided to conclude peace agreements with Mehsud. But critics claim those agreement merely allowed Baitullah Mehsud to become stronger and expand his reach to nearby regions of Pakistan along the Afghan border.

compiled from agency reports