Pakistan leaps into dark with fight in Taliban heartland

June 17th, 2009 - 12:08 pm ICT by IANS  

Taliban By Nadeem Sarwar
Islamabad, June 17 (DPA) Nothing can be guaranteed as Islamabad declared war on the head of Pakistan’s Taliban, Baitullah Mehsud, except that the nuclear-armed Islamic country is going to see more bloodshed.

The regional governor in North West Frontier Province, Owais Ahmed Ghani, said on the weekend that troops were given orders for “a full scale” operation against Mehsud’s base in South Waziristan, a rugged and mountainous tribal district that borders Afghanistan.

The decision might appease Washington, which has long pressed Pakistan to act against Mehsud, who has a $5-million US bounty on his head for being a key Al Qaeda facilitator.

However, local analysts say the move seems to have been taken in haste, as the military has yet to conclude its ongoing offensive in northwestern valley of Swat and three neighbouring districts.

“The timing for the assault is inappropriate,” said Mehmood Shah, a former security chief in the tribal region. “We have not seen the kind of military build-up and the sort of preparation that is required for an operation in Taliban’s mainland.”

“A serious operation in Taliban territory needs large numbers of troops and equipment, but a major bulk of our military remains deployed on the eastern border with India,” Shah explained. “Moreover, thousands of soldiers will be staying to ensure writ of the state in Swat for some more time.”

Pakistan’s military claims to have cleared much of Swat and nearby areas of Taliban insurgents in an operation that started in late April, killing more than 1,400 militants. A low-intensity insurgency still continues, obstructing the return of some 2.5 million people uprooted by the fighting.

An effective strategy of air and artillery strikes followed by infantry advances in Swat, that forced Taliban fighters to flee to the mountains, might have encouraged the military to replicate it against Mehsud, who heads Tekrik-e-Taliban Pakistan - an umbrella group of more than a dozen militants groups.

“That sort of strategy can be even more effective in South Waziristan since it is a sparsely populated area and airstrikes can hurt Taliban much harder than they did in Swat,” said Saleem Safi, a veteran journalist in NWFP, who has covered the conflict near the border for over a decade.

But Mehsud, who defeated the Pakistani Army in 2007 and forced them into a controversial peace deal, has other strategic advantages that make him a dangerous enemy.

Unlike Swat’s Taliban, the warlord, who is in his late 30s, has an army of between 10,000 and 15,000 well-trained, equipped and motivated fighters, and a squad of hundreds of suicide bombers, ready to kill themselves and as many others as they can.

He also has close links with Al Qaeda and banned militant groups like Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and Jaish-e-Mohammad, based in the country’s most populous Punjab province and areas outside restive northwest, giving him much wider range for strikes.

“The retaliatory power that Baitullah Mehsud has in terms of suicide attacks is much deadlier than what Taliban groups in Swat had. And this will cost the government and the country a heavy price,” Safi said.

Yet there could be no better time to track down Mehsud than now, as public support turned against the Taliban, and some challengers have emerged from Mehsud’s own tribe.

Qari Zainuddin launched a campaign to convince his tribesmen to rise against Mehsud, mainly to settle scores with the Taliban leader he accuses of murdering his uncle and brother. Revenge is one of the basic elements of tribal tradition in South Waziristan.

Although Zainuddin has had little success bringing about a tribal revolt against Mehsud, despite covert backing from the military and intelligence agencies, things might change as aerial attacks hit the Taliban leader.

Other militant leaders in the tribal district may play a decisive role in the assault against Mehsud.

Commanders like Maulvi Nazir in South Waziristan, Hafiz Gul Bahadur and Sirajuddin Haqqani in North Waziristan are considered pro-Pakistan Taliban leaders as they focus merely on fighting NATO troops in Afghanistan.

Altogether, they are estimated to lead between 30,000 and 40,000 fighters in the Waziristan area.

“So far they have not made up their mind and their decision will be very significant. If they side with Baitullah the conflict will expand to the entire tribal belt and no one knows what its outcome will be and how long will it continue,” Safi said.

Whatever the final outcome of the assault against Mehsud, the US-led troops in Afghanistan are going to benefit.

“In the face of a Pakistani offensive, Mehsud would be less likely to send his men to Afghanistan,” said Hasan Askari Rizvi, a leading defence analyst at the John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington.

Instead, at least some of his Taliban supporters might be compelled to send their men to assist Mehsud, who gives his allegiance to Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Omar, to protect their safe havens.

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