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US Envoy Praises Pakistan's Progress Against Taliban

U.S. special envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan Richard Holbrooke
ISLAMABAD (Reuters) -- Pakistan has been shifting its forces by historic proportions from its Indian border to the Afghan frontier, gaining ground against militants and giving the United States room to focus more on economic problems threatening the nuclear-armed state, Washington's envoy said.

Richard Holbrooke, President Barack Obama's special representative for Pakistan and Afghanistan, told reporters travelling with him to Islamabad on August 16 that his current focus on economic and social issues, rather than security, reflected gains by the Pakistani military in the Swat and Buner valleys.

The offensive has brought the apparent killing of Baitullah Mehsud, the Taliban leader in Pakistan. U.S. intelligence officials say the missile strike on Mehsud by an unmanned CIA drone has sparked a power struggle in militant ranks.

Holbrooke cited "signs of progress" on the security front, including Pakistan's renewed control of Mingora, the capital of the Swat region. But he cautioned: "We don't know whether the Taliban were destroyed or merely dispersed."

"If you compare the situation in Pakistan today to what it was in March and April, there's been a dramatic change," Holbrooke said. After several days of talks with leaders in Pakistan, Holbrooke plans to travel to Afghanistan, where elections will be held on Thursday.

"Swat has been retaken. Buner has been retaken. Baitullah Mehsud is gone and it looks like there's a struggle for succession among his commanders. It doesn't mean the problems are solved— far from it -- but that's a hell of a lot better than it was a few months ago."

Offensive On Hold

After Swat, the Pakistani military had planned to quickly turn its attention to an offensive in the remote, mountainous region of South Waziristan on the Afghan border -- Mehsud's stronghold.

But the anticipated offensive appears to be on hold, at least for the moment, U.S. officials said.

Swat proved costly to Pakistan, creating a refugee crisis. Many parts of Swat have yet to be fully secured and the job of reconstruction is expected to be daunting. Pakistan knows an all-out assault on Waziristan could prove far more difficult, they said.

Pakistani officials have made clear to their American counterparts that they want to see how the Taliban's power struggle plays out before moving in. They also worry that taking military action too soon will spur rival factions to put aside their differences and re-unite.

"The issue with Waziristan is complicated for them," Holbrooke said. "There's a moment to attack and there's a moment not to. And the Pakistani government will have to decide that for itself."

The United States, Holbrooke said, has been "scrounging for parts" sought by Pakistan to bolster its fleet of Cobra helicopters.

"We're giving helicopters, assistance of all types to them, night vision goggles," he said. "But it's a long complicated supply chain that involves Congress, it involves very strict accounting procedures that the Pakistani government has not always followed."

Pakistan has long been under Western pressure to shift its forces westward to where the Taliban and their allies have their strongholds. Such a move would increase the effectiveness of U.S. anti-Taliban operations in Afghanistan. "Why it's historically significant is clear," Holbrooke said.