"When in doubt, do nothing" could have served as the Pakistani military's unofficial motto until now on the tricky question of tackling militant strongholds in the tribal badlands of North Waziristan. But doing nothing may no longer be an option, now that the Obama Administration is blaming the failed Times Square bomb attack on the Pakistani Taliban, or Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Washington has long cajoled the Pakistani army to extend its campaign against militants on its own soil into North Waziristan, where the TTP leadership has set up shop amid a viper's nest of militant groups that include al-Qaeda, but the generals have until now demurred, claiming a lack of resources. Following reports that Times Square bombing suspect Faisal Shahzad was trained by TTP elements in North Waziristan, the pressure on Pakistan from Washington has sharply increased, leaving the Pakistani military leadership in an increasingly uncomfortable position.
On May 7, the top U.S. military commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, met with Pakistan's army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani, reportedly to coax Pakistan into moving into North Waziristan. And on May 9, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sternly warned of "very severe consequences" for Pakistan if an attack similar to the one tried in Times Square were to prove successful.
Pakistanis are already embarrassed at the fact that Shahzad was not only born in Pakistan and is alleged to have been trained there, but is also the son of a retired senior military officer. More alarming still is the apparent move by the TTP, until now a domestic insurgency directed at the Pakistani state, to target a U.S. city in retaliation for drone attacks in Pakistan. That leaves Pakistan's political and military leadership to find a response sensitive to both the needs of a key ally and the concerns of a skeptical public.
Wary of U.S. motives at the best of times, Pakistani public opinion was rankled by Clinton's warning. Even liberal newspapers committed to fighting militancy warned of the statement's unintended effects. "Ms. Clinton's comments are unfortunate and will rekindle suspicions here that America is no real friend of Pakistan," said an editorial in Dawn, Pakistan's leading newspaper. The fear is that those who oppose the campaign against jihadist militancy will turn Pakistani ire at Clinton's perceived bullying to their advantage in the battle for Pakistani hearts and minds.
But while an offensive launched under pressure from the U.S. could antagonize the Pakistani public, there could be an even greater backlash should the U.S. decide to take matters into its own hands. This year alone has seen at least 32 U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan, principally at targets in North Waziristan, and that program which infuriates many Pakistanis is set to continue. While the authorities may be able to absorb the political fallout from the increasingly accurate drone strikes, their real worry is that Washington might decide to send its own ground forces into North Waziristan. "[The presence of U.S. troops] would be truly disastrous," says Aftab Sherpao, who served as Interior Minister under former military ruler General Pervez Musharraf. The mere presence of foreign soldiers, he believes, would inflame public opinion to dangerous proportions, weakening the hand of the civilian government and the army. In September 2008, the only known case of an American boots-on-the-ground operation triggered a chorus of outrage, led by General Kayani himself.
Even if the U.S. refrained from expanding its own actions on Pakistani soil, the generals and politicians also fear that failure to act could jeopardize the flow of hundreds of millions of dollars in civilian and military aid from Washington.
Given the risks that follow from doing nothing, Pakistan will have to take action. "The army realizes that it must go into North Waziristan," says retired Pakistani general and analyst Talat Masood. "They have been looking at this option for quite some time, but they have been hesitant, as they are overstretched." Tens of thousands of Pakistani troops are already fanned out across the northwest and the tribal areas in an effort to consolidate gains made in recent offensives. "Washington should appreciate that we have covered a lot of area," insists Sherpao, the former Interior Minister. "There have been operations in Swat, Bajaur, Mohmand and South Waziristan. We cannot move troops from the eastern border because there's no comfort as far as India is concerned." As the military's decision to test-fire two ballistic missiles at the weekend demonstrates, India remains its principal focus.
The Pakistani military has long drawn a distinction between the Taliban, and related insurgent groups, using its soil as a base from which to attack NATO forces in Afghanistan and those waging war on the Pakistani state. The Afghanistan-oriented groups have been allowed to operate largely unmolested in keeping with Pakistan's desire to recover lost influence in Afghanistan, while the military has gone after the TTP. But as the army pushed into the TTP's strongholds in South Waziristan, the group moved north, into territory controlled by Hafiz Gul Bahadur a militant leader who enjoys a fragile nonaggression pact with the Pakistan army. "It's a very complex area," says Masood, "particularly because there are elements there that are not so hostile to the Pakistani military." By that he means the Haqqani network, an al-Qaeda linked Afghan Taliban group deemed one of the most dangerous confronting the U.S. in Afghanistan but viewed as a strategic asset by Pakistan's intelligence services. "The army will prefer to take a limited operation, one that is confined to the Mehsud areas," says Masood, referring to TTP leader Hakimullah Mehsud.
But North Waziristan is only one part of the jihadist infrastructure that enables terror attacks beyond Pakistan's borders. As Shahzad's alleged story making contact with militant elements in Karachi before heading off to North Waziristan for training demonstrates, there are jihadist groups seeded throughout the country, and they're strengthening their cooperative ties with one another.
Dismantling that infrastructure will take years, say Pakistani analysts and politicians. "You can't start operations against all these groups simultaneously," says Sherpao. "You have to proceed step by step. You have to consolidate your gains first, then move on to the next target." But the Shahzad case, says Sherpao, should serve as a wake-up call. "The political and military leadership have to sit down now and devise a serious response," he says. "Otherwise, it will become very difficult."