Pakistan Plan to Attack Taliban Haven Promises Wider War

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McClatchy Newspapers

Pakistan Plan to Attack Taliban Haven Promises Wider War

by
Saeed Shah

Pakistani soldiers patrol on a mountain near a military post overlooking Wana, the main town of the South Waziristan region, near the Afghan border April 11, 2007. Revenge for army action in Waziristan could cause carnage across the country, severely testing hard-won public support for taking on the Taliban, even destabilizing the country. It would also add to the humanitarian crisis of people displaced by fighting, which stands now at some 3 million. (REUTERS/Maqsood Mehdi)

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - Waziristan, the remote area that's the
epicenter of Taliban and al Qaida militants in Pakistan, is set to
become the next war zone in the nation's fight against Islamic
extremists, where clashes between insurgents and the army erupted over
the weekend.

So far, there are just skirmishes in Waziristan but the key U.S. ally
plans a full-scale military offensive there this summer, according to
Pakistani and Western officials, a fight that is certain to be deadlier
than the current operation in Swat valley and with profound
international repercussions.

Western
leaders have repeatedly said that international terrorist plots are
being hatched in Waziristan, while the area provides a sanctuary for
Afghan insurgents and al Qaida leaders, possibly including Osama bin
Laden and his deputy Ayman al Zawahiri.

South
Waziristan, a part of the wild tribal territory that lies along the
Afghan border, houses Pakistan's public enemy number one, warlord
Baitullah Mehsud, who has thousands of armed followers around him. The
insurgency across the country is fueled by fighters and suicide bombers
sent by Mehsud. North Waziristan is also under the control of a Taliban
warlord.

Pakistani forces are making rapid progress through Swat
valley, in the North West Frontier Province, and they've previously
claimed to have cleared two other areas that were under Taliban
domination, Bajaur and Mohmand, which are part of the tribal territory.

But the specter of Waziristan, the fountainhead of extremism, now looms.

"The
final battle will be fought in South Waziristan," said Asad Munir,
formerly head of military intelligence for the tribal area and the
North West Frontier Province. "They've started it (the offensive
against the insurgents) and if they leave it mid-way, they should be
mentally prepared to hand this country over to the Taliban. They have
to complete it. There is no other way."

Pakistan has launched
multiple operations against Taliban on its soil since 2004 but critics
say that each time they have been half-heartedly pursued and ended with
a truce that left the militants in control, including a peace deal in
South Waziristan in early 2008.

But, under intense international
pressure, the current offensive in Swat, and before that the recent
operation in Bajaur, have finally hit the insurgents hard.

Failure
now would hugely embolden the militants, Asad said. Taking back Swat
and the tribal area, especially Waziristan, would deny the insurgents
the vast tracts of territory that they now control, where training
camps and schools for indoctrinating suicide bombers are freely run.

While
Washington and other western allies pressed Pakistan to take action in
Swat, which lies just 100 miles from the capital Islamabad, the valley
is not thought to be a significant base for Afghan insurgents or al
Qaida. But Waziristan is seen by Western countries, from the United
States to Spain, as crucial to their homeland security.

"Waziristan
is at the heart of Western counter-terrorism interests in this region,"
said a Western security official based in Pakistan, who could not be
named because of the sensitivity of the issue. "Waziristan would hit
the sweet spot for us. But we'd rather not have a campaign than a
campaign (in Waziristan) that failed."

Waziristan provides a
crucial safe haven to Afghan insurgents, as well as a launching pad for
Pakistani jihadists heading to Afghanistan. It is also a headquarters
for international terrorists.

The offensive in Swat has led to
bloody terrorist reprisals, with a chilling threat issued last week by
the Taliban to escalate the attacks by striking some of Pakistan's
biggest cities.

Revenge for army action in Waziristan could cause
carnage across the country, severely testing hard-won public support
for taking on the Taliban, even destabilizing the country. It would
also add to the humanitarian crisis of people displaced by fighting,
which stands now at some 3 million.

Militarily, Waziristan poses
a huge challenge to Pakistani forces. Its harsh mountainous terrain is
ideally suited to guerrilla warfare, while the Taliban is concentrated
in the area, where they have been entrenched for years, allowing them
to build tunnels, bunkers and fortifications.

Unlike Swat, where
the population largely welcomed the army once they saw that it was a
serious operation, the fierce tribal people of Waziristan are deeply
hostile to outsiders, including the Pakistani military.

South
Waziristan, covering 2,500 square miles, has lawless regions to three
sides - North Waziristan to the north, Baluchistan province to the
south and the Afghan province of Paktika to the west, providing ready
escape routes to the insurgents.

Analysts said that a successful
operation would need to seal off South Waziristan, especially the
option of retreat into Afghanistan, requiring strong co-ordination with
the U.S.-led forces across the border. Joint Pakistan-U.S. planning for
the operation is likely to be underway, mirroring the collaboration
undertaken last year when the Bajaur offensive began and U.S. forces
intercepted fleeing Pakistani Taliban in the bordering Afghan province
of Kunar. The Waziristan campaign should coincide with the arrival of
the extra "surge" of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

"They should
co-operate with the Americans and employ the classic 'hammer and anvil'
technique, with Pakistan forces isolating South Waziristan and pushing
them (the Taliban) towards the border," said Javed Hussain, a former
Brigadier with Pakistan's Special Services Group commando unit. "That's
where the American forces should act as the anvil, and the Pakistani
forces as the hammer. In between the two, the insurgents are crushed."

The
operation in Swat valley, launched on 7 May, could be over in "two to
three days" senior Pakistan defense official Syed Athar Ali told a
conference in Singapore Sunday. There is speculation that Waziristan
could follow as early as this month (June), though July or August may
be more likely given the need to stabilize Swat.

Sensing the
coming showdown, Taliban in South Waziristan have started to attack
army bases and check posts in the area, with 25 militants and at three
soldiers reported killed by the authorities Sunday.

Shah is McClatchy's special correspondent in Pakistan and is based in Islamabad.

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