Pakistan Readies for New Assault on Bin Laden Lair

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The Independent/UK

Pakistan Readies for New Assault on Bin Laden Lair

Suicide bombers show their resilience with daring attack on UN offices in Islamabad as 28,000 troops mass for imminent strike in the mountains of South Waziristan

by
Omar Waraich in Islamabad and Andrew Buncombe

The new Pakistani Taliban chief Hakimullah Mehsud, left, seen here in Sararogha, South Waziristan, on Sunday. Mehsud has vowed to strike back at Pakistan and the US for the increasing number of drone attacks along the border with Afghanistan. (AP image)

In what is likely to be its sternest challenge
yet, Pakistan's military is poised to launch a major offensive in the
coming days against militants in the remote mountainous terrain of
South Waziristan, long rumoured to be the hiding place of Osama bin
Laden.

After months of preparation that has
involved massing 28,000 troops near the tribal area on the Afghan
border, and after weeks of air strikes designed to soften up militant
positions, senior military sources in Islamabad told The Independent
that the long-awaited operation was imminent. The US has also increased
drone strikes in the region to target key figures.

The
operation to take on the 10,000-strong Mehsud network, formerly headed
by Baitullah Mehsud, comes amid heavy pressure on Pakistan from
Washington to continue its fight against militants, many of whom are
involved in cross-border attacks on Western troops in Afghanistan.

On the weekend, Pentagon officials who have been
monitoring the plans to launch the operation suggested that
preparations were complete: "We would assess that they have plenty of
force to do the job right now," said one official, who declined to be
identified.

Confirmation of Pakistan's
readiness emerged as militants yesterday underscored their enduring
ability to strike at high-profile targets when a suicide bomber killed
five people and injured several others in an attack on a UN office in
Islamabad. Witnesses said the bomber entered the offices of the World
Food Programme (WFP) and set off the bomb, triggering chaos.

"There was a loud blast, a flash of light, and the windows shattered,"
said Dominique Frankefourt, the WFP's deputy country director. "I was
on the first floor of the two-storey building. I told everyone to get
out as quickly as possible. But when I came down to the ground floor,
there were people lying on the floor who could not move."

Officials said that such attacks are likely to increase in the weeks
ahead if the operation in South Waziristan proceeds as anticipated.

Previous
operations this year to drive the Taliban from the Swat valley and
nearby areas resulted in a series of "revenge" attacks, many of them
launched by the Mehsud network. The Interior Minister, Rehman Malik,
told Pakistan's parliament yesterday that "we should expect a few more"
such attacks in the days ahead.

A major
operation in South Waziristan would also probably lead to fresh
problems for aid agencies if large numbers of people flee the region,
as happened earlier this year when more than two million people left
their homes in Swat. Hundreds of thousands of those who fled have yet
to return. UN officials would not comment on whether they believed a
military operation was imminent but admitted that some preparations had
been made. The UN said last week that 80,000 people had already left
the South Waziristan area since June and estimated that up to 170,000
could follow if the operation goes ahead.

Confronted
by a faltering operation in Afghanistan and amid mounting doubt about
its ability to achieve a military victory there, the assault on South
Waziristan is considered critically important by the US administration
of President Barack Obama.

Washington wishes to
see Islamabad take on militants responsible for cross-border attacks on
US and Nato troops and prevent Pakistan from being a safe haven for
such fighters.

For a long time, the US has
complained that while Pakistan - which has received billions of dollars
in military aid since 11 September 2001 - was prepared to target
militants responsible for attacks inside the country, it was less
willing to pursue those whose primary battlefields were inside
Afghanistan. Indeed, it is an open secret that elements within Pakistan
still consider such militants to be strategic assets.

Such
concerns will not have been eased by the news that the Pakistan army
has renewed a non-aggression pact with Maulvi Nazir, a Taliban leader
who earlier this year said he was joining forces with Baitullah Mehsud
and Hafiz Gul Bahadur to target Western forces across the border and
support the Afghan Taliban leader, Mullah Omar.

"You
have a lot of guys in South Waziristan that Pakistan treats as assets,"
said Christine Fair, an analyst with the Washington-based Rand
Corporation. "Maulvi Nazir is an enemy of the US but he is most
certainly an asset of Pakistan."

Baitullah
Mehsud was assassinated in a CIA-operated drone strike at the beginning
of August. The South Waziristan operation will focus on what remains of
his network.

Hakimullah Mehsud, the new leader
of the Pakistan Taliban, reportedly appeared over the weekend alongside
other militant leaders to vow revenge for Baitullah Mehsud's killing,
ending speculation that he too had been killed.

Pakistan
has been reluctant to return to South Waziristan after humiliating
retreats in earlier operations. Ensuing peace deals allowed the
militants to regroup and consolidate their grip on the historically
inhospitable territory that was a headache for British commanders in
colonial times.

The difficulties are compounded
by the presence of well-trained foreign fighters, notably
al-Qa'ida-affiliated Arabs and central Asians. Punjabi sectarian
militants who fought in the Swat valley have also moved into the region.

Pakistan's
army is hampered by a lack of counter-insurgency training and an
operation in South Waziristan, with winter snows not far away, would
probably lead to more army casualties than those suffered in Swat.

World's most wanted: Could he be hiding in Waziristan?

It
has been almost eight years since the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden -
the man George Bush once famously said he wanted "dead or alive" - were
known with any certainty.

But ever since the
al-Qa'ida leader slipped out of the cave complex at Tora Bora and
walked across the border into Pakistan in December 2001, the tribal
areas of South and North Waziristan have been identified as possible
hiding places for him. He has many allies in the area, such as the
father-and-son Haqqani network based in North Waziristan. And the
strict Pashtun code of hospitality would oblige local tribal leaders to
provide him with shelter. Many experts believe Bin Laden has long been
supplanted as the day-to-day head of the terror network that he
unleashed. However, he still represents an inspirational figure to many
jihadis, and his capture would be a major symbolic boost for the West.
That, of course, is assuming that Bin Laden is still alive. Many
believe he is long dead.

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