A week after a CIA drone strike is believed to have killed Baitullah Mehsud, you'd think the Pakistan military would be rushing to capitalize on the apparent disarray in the leadership of the Pakistani Taliban as rivals fight to succeed him. But rather than mount an offensive in the strongholds of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in South Waziristan the sort of campaign promised by President Asif Ali Zardari back in May Pakistan's generals seem content to let the CIA's drones do most of the fighting.
Indeed, some officials in Islamabad say Mehsud's death may open the way for a truce with the TTP, if his successor agrees to stop fighting the Pakistani state and instead turns their weapons on Western forces in Afghanistan. But that would be a terrible outcome for the U.S. and NATO commanders there, who already have their hands full with fighters coming across the border. Some U.S. officials fear that a failure to strike at the TTP now will allow the group to recover from the loss of its charismatic leader and remain a major threat to U.S. interests in the region.
Since Mehsud's reported death, the TTP has been beset by infighting as several high-level commanders vie for the top job; conflicting reports say one or more contenders have been killed. Leaderless, the group is vulnerable to a military assault. "[The Pakistan military] have had months to prepare for this moment," says a U.S. official, who asked not to be identified because he isn't authorized to speak with the media. "This is the moment to strike, and strike hard."
But a Pakistani offensive in South Waziristan is looking less likely with each passing day. One senior Pakistani military officer told TIME that it would take a month to launch an offensive on South Waziristan. Other officers say the military has yet to complete its operational assessment of such an offensive and that they have received "confused instructions" from the regional governor.
"If there was to have been a military offensive, it would have happened weeks ago," says Shuja Nawaz, a Pakistan expert at the Atlantic Council. He says the Pakistan military doesn't have the resources to open up a second front in its war with homegrown extremists: it still has more than 50,000 troops engaged in mopping up the Swat Valley, near Islamabad. Weeks after the military took the valley and its surroundings back from a Taliban group loosely affiliated with the TTP, extremists continue to mount hit-and-run operations seven schools were torched in nearby Buner on Tuesday.
Nawaz points out that the wild, mountainous South Waziristan terrain would be especially difficult for the Pakistan military, which has previously come to grief against militants there. Other analysts say an additional problem is the presence of scores, possibly hundreds, of foreign fighters, many of whom have a lot of experience fighting conventional armies. "The Pakistan army is not in a position to carry out a full-fledged operation in South Waziristan," says Amir Rana, an expert on militancy and director of the Pak Institute for Peace Studies. "The Tajiks are still there, the Uzbeks are still there."
Pakistan military commanders say the best course is to choke off access routes to South Waziristan and punish the militants from the skies: a combination of CIA-operated drones and Pakistan air force jets equipped with enhanced targeting capability. Pakistani officials are also hoping to make peace deals with some elements of the TTP in an effort to turn them against Mehsud's fighters.
Those identified as the most likely turncoats in this strategy are the leaders of the Ahmedzai Wazir tribe, Hafiz Gul Bahadur and Maulvi Nazir. Both are primarily interested in fighting against Western forces in Afghanistan; Nazir has previously made (and broken) non-aggression deals with Islamabad. Another outcome that could suit Pakistan's interests is Mehsud's group being brought under greater influence from Mullah Omar, head of the Afghan Taliban, and Sirajuddin Haqqani, whose network is also primarily engaged in fighting Western forces in Afghanistan. Both men are believed to have strong connections to Pakistani intelligence.
U.S. officials say such peace deals would be shortsighted, and doomed to be short-lived. "History suggests that [a truce is] something they could try to do," says a U.S. counterterrorism official. "But it's worth remembering that past attempts at truce deals with extremist groups have been unmitigated disasters for Pakistan itself." Mehsud used one such truce the 2005 Sara Rogha agreement to expand and consolidate the TTP's reach across South Waziristan and beyond.
President Obama's special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, travels to the region at the end of the week. Count on him to deliver a history lesson.
With reporting by Omar Waraich / Islamabad