Despite strenuous entreaties by top U.S. officials, Pakistan has abandoned plans to mount a military offensive against the terrorist group responsible for a two-year campaign of suicide bombings across the country. Although the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) has been in disarray since an Aug. 5 missile strike from a CIA-operated drone killed its leader, Baitullah Mehsud, the Pakistani military has concluded that a ground attack on its strongholds in South Waziristan would be too difficult.
The Pakistani military has choked off main roads leading out of South Waziristan, and the country's fighter jets have been pounding targets from the air (an operation Islamabad insists it will continue). But that falls short of the military campaign the U.S. desires. Instead, Pakistani authorities are hoping to exploit divisions within the TTP to prize away some factions, while counting on the CIA's drones to take out Baitullah's successors.
U.S. counterterrorism officials worry that a failure to capitalize on the post-Baitullah confusion within the TTP will allow its new leader, Hakimullah Mehsud, to consolidate his position and reorganize the group. Officials in Washington say special envoy Richard Holbrooke and NATO commander General Stanley McChrystal have pressed the Pakistanis to strike while the iron is hot. But after initial promises to launch a ground offensive in South Waziristan, the Pakistanis have backed off.
A top Pakistani general, Nadeem Ahmed, recently said preparation for such an operation could take up to two months. Now there will be no ground assault at all, according to a senior Pakistani politician known to have strong military ties. Instead, the politician tells TIME, the military will try to buy off some TTP factions through peace deals.
This alarms U.S. officials, who point out that terrorist leaders have previously used peace deals to expand their influence. Such deals have been "abject failures that at the end of the day have made the security situation in parts of Pakistan worse," says a U.S. counterterrorism official. "Why the Pakistani government keeps returning to this strategy is a mystery."
A senior Pakistani military official tells TIME a ground operation in the mountainous wilds of South Waziristan would be too difficult and would risk triggering a "tribal uprising" in a region over which Islamabad has little control.
That assessment is shared by some Pakistan experts in Washington, who say the country's military, despite some success against militants in the Swat Valley, simply doesn't have the ability to confront the TTP head-on. A ground operation would leave the Pakistani army "with its nose bloodied," says Daniel Markey of the Council on Foreign Relations. Having "come out of Swat looking reasonably good," Pakistan's generals don't want to risk "taking a morale hit."
But the experts like some U.S. officials suspect the Pakistani military lacks the desire to eliminate the TTP entirely. Bruce Riedel of the Brookings Institution, who conducted the Obama Administration's review of Afghanistan and Pakistan policy, says the military may simply want "to get the TTP back to where it was two years ago a malleable force that doesn't attack the Pakistani state, and particularly not the army." A somewhat tame TTP is a useful bogeyman "to keep civilians appreciative of the need for the army to be getting resources and priority attention," Riedel adds.
For the Obama Administration, the Pakistani military's reluctance to take on the TTP doesn't bode well for the pursuit of U.S. interests. Washington would like Islamabad to confront the groups that pose a direct threat to NATO forces across the border in Afghanistan the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network. But "it's not clear that the Pakistanis are prepared to pay more than lip service to that," says Riedel.
With reporting by Omar Waraich / Islamabad