/ 15 June 2009

Pakistan steels for army assault on Waziristan

Pakistan braced for militant reprisals on Monday as the army conducted softening-up operations ahead of an assault on the stronghold of Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud, one of al-Qaeda’s main allies.

Military experts see the showdown in remote South Waziristan as a possible Waterloo for al-Qaeda and its allies as the government has demonstrated a fighting spirit hitherto missing in Pakistan.

”We continue to fight until the last Taliban, militant, enemy of Pakistan is flushed out of Pakistan,” Interior Minister Rehman Malik told police in Islamabad on Monday.

Extra police roadblocks caused unusually long traffic tailbacks in the capital on Monday morning as Rehman feared more bomb attacks like those that killed eight people in Dera Ismail Khan on Sunday and nine in a Peshawar hotel last week.

United States officials say they believe the Pakistan army has started a big push into Mehsud’s mountainous redoubt, and on Sunday Awais Ahmed Ghani, governor of North West Frontier Province, confirmed an operation had been ordered.

The US heaved a sigh of relief when the army went on the offensive in late April to clear the Swat valley and neighbouring districts northwest of the capital, Islamabad.

The start of a campaign against Mehsud will doubly reassure Western allies, who fear the nuclear-armed Muslim state could plunge into chaos unless the Taliban’s creeping advances are stopped.

Waziristan has long been regarded as a militant sanctuary, and al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden passed through the area before disappearing after fleeing Afghanistan in late 2001.

Military and intelligence officials told Reuters the main operation has not yet started, though a countdown has begun.

There have been a series of actions in recent days, including the bombing of a Mehsud village on Saturday, and an army assault on militant tribesmen in the nearby Bannu district, while two forts in Waziristan came under heavy attack from Mehsud fighters.

Few places left to run
The Pakistan army, for all its firepower, faces a difficult campaign given the terrain, the fact that the Taliban is embedded with a civilian population, and the desperation of their opponents.

”It’s going to be a tough battle initially because this going to be their final battle,” retired brigadier Asad Munir, a former Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) officer, told Reuters.

”It is for their survival so all of them are going to join together, the jihadis, sectarian groups, foreigners, al-Qaeda.

”If they take over South Waziristan there’ll be no place for al-Qaeda leaders to hide.”

Missile attacks by US drone aircraft have largely targeted North and South Waziristan, the two most militant prone of Pakistan seven semi-autonomous tribal lands bordering Afghanistan.

CIA director Leon Panetta said last week he believed bin Laden was still in Pakistan, but US officials have told journalists that some al-Qaeda fighters have begun moving to Yemen and Somalia as Pakistan has become too risky.

While the main focus remains Swat and Waziristan, the military has also been hitting militant positions across the northwest, with airstrikes and helicopter gunship raids in Bajaur and Mohmand on Sunday, and in Orakzai last week.

Rahimullah Yousafzai, a senior journalist based in Peshawar, saw the risk of a protracted struggle against Mehsud’s Taliban.

”It won’t be easy to win,” said Yousafzai. ”It could take a long time as he has men everywhere like Mohmand, Bajaur, Swat.”

The Swat operation is in its last stages, but more than two million people have fled the combat zone since fighting broke out in late April, and the prospect of more abandoning their homes in Waziristan will add to worries over a humanitarian crisis.

The US and United Nations are leading efforts to raise funds to help Pakistan cope. — Reuters