Pakistan army plans to open second front against Taliban

Pakistan plans to escalate its military operations against the Taliban massively by opening a second front in the country's lawless border areas.
 
Pakistan army plans to open second front against Taliban
Soldiers on the border of Pakistan's North West Frontier Province

The army, which is fighting in Swat Valley and two neighbouring districts in North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), is planning to begin a new offensive in the badlands of the Waziristan tribal areas as early as next month, sources told The Daily Telegraph.

"The army is planning to go into Waziristan, possibly in June, which will involve huge numbers of troops in an attempt to establish some sort of state control over the area," said a source close to the Pakistani military.
The most likely first target of operations will be the head of the Pakistani Taliban, Baitullah Mehsud, whose stronghold is in South Waziristan, which borders Afghanistan.

Washington has intensified pressure on Pakistan to launch an offensive in Waziristan since President Barack Obama came to power.

Mehsud, 35, who claimed responsibility for the attack on a police training centre outside Lahore in March, is head of the loosely bound alliance of Pakistani Taliban groups.

In March, the US state department described Mehsud, a former gym instructor, as a "key al-Qaeda facilitator" and offered a $5 million (£3.3 million) reward for information leading to his arrest.

The former military ruler, Pervez Musharraf, and the CIA accused him of masterminding the assassination of the former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, which he denied.

A senior western diplomat confirmed that the Pakistani government was considering whether to declare an emergency in NWFP and launch an all-out operation against the Taliban.

The fall-out from operations conducted in the border area are potentially enormous as NWFP is already facing a refugee crisis with over one million people expected to flee fighting in and around the Swat Valley between the Taliban and the military.

The counter-reaction may be felt across Pakistan as suicide bombers trained by al-Qaeda who fall under Mehsud's command could unleash a wave of attacks.

The army will have to navigate treacherous tribal and militant politics as it cannot afford to stoke a mass tribal uprising.

In terms of logistics, operations in Waziristan are painstakingly slow and expensive as simply moving supplies and troops ties up thousands of soldiers who must picket hill tops and valleys to avoid ambushes.

Pakistan's military and political leadership have been involved in discussions with western diplomats over whether they could redeploy troops from the eastern border with India to fight the Taliban in the west.

One suggestion was that India and Pakistan might agree to remove a certain number of divisions each from the border.

However distrust between the two nuclear-armed rivals has peaked once again since Indian military aircraft overflew Pakistani territory last year after Pakistani terrorists launched the bloody attack on Mumbai.

The Pakistan army has already deployed 130,000 troops in NWFP and the tribal areas. Some 80,000 of that figure are members of the paramilitary Frontier Corps.

The army has launched previous operations in the tribal areas since 2001, mainly in the Khyber agency and South and North Waziristan. Two years ago Mehsud's men captured more than 200 soldiers.

But western critics claimed that the operations were half-hearted and that they inevitably ended in peace deals being struck with militants.

However, analysts say that an indication of the seriousness of the Pakistani military's intent towards the Taliban this time will be measured by whether it is prepared to take on more powerful Taliban commanders.

One such commander is Jalaluddin Haqqani whose sights are trained on coalition forces in Afghanistan and who many senior officers regard as a "strategic asset" through whom Pakistan can retain influence in Afghanistan.

Mehsud recently joined an alliance of Taliban commanders ahead of the new US deployment in Afghanistan.

Mr Obama's government is replacing the general overseeing the war in Afghanistan, General David McKiernan, as more than 21,000 additional US forces begin to arrive in Afghanistan.
 
 
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