Pakistan Faces the Perils of Anti-Taliban Offensive

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Nicolas Asfouri / Reuters

Pakistani soldiers stand guard in the Sherwangi region of South Waziristan.

The allegation that Faisal Shahzad, accused in the failed bombing attempt in Times Square, was trained in North Waziristan has raised U.S. pressure on Pakistan to tackle that hornet's nest of militancy. Until now, the Pakistanis have postponed any such operations, citing limited available resources following their campaigns elsewhere against the Pakistani Taliban. But even as they mull a new offensive in the politically and militarily perilous terrain, the options facing Pakistan's generals present no quick or easy solution — and all run the risk of exacerbating security threats in Pakistan and abroad.

The idea that the Pakistani military is doing nothing in North Waziristan, the only one of seven areas comprising Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Agencies (FATA) that hasn't been subjected to a full-blown offensive, is misleading. There are currently 70,000 troops deployed across the FATA, 15,000 of them in North Waziristan, where they're engaged in limited operations, mainly to cut off the retreat of militants fleeing battles elsewhere to seek refuge in the extremist hub. The U.S. military has also stepped up its lethal drone attacks in the area to decapitate the militant leadership. There have been 35 strikes so far this year, all but two of which struck targets in North Waziristan, compared to 53 throughout 2009, according to a tally kept by the Washington-based New America Foundation.

But North Waziristan is obviously not just a Pakistani problem. The agency has become an incubator for would-be jihadists, many of them radicalized Western Muslims seeking the training and support to wage war on the West, either in Afghanistan or back home.

Until now, the reason given by the Pakistani Army for declining Washington's request that it launch a large-scale operation against militants in North Waziristan is that the troops it is able to devote to domestic counterinsurgency are stretched too thin by the anti-Taliban campaigns in Swat, South Waziristan and other regions. But the area is also the base of what many in Pakistan's security establishment view as "good" Taliban with which they have longstanding links — such as the network of Jalaluddin Haqqani, which primarily stages attacks across the border in Afghanistan. Pakistan is retaining ties with these and other key leaders of the Afghan Taliban as a counterweight to perceived Indian influence in Kabul.

But North Waziristan is also now home to the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the umbrella militant group at war with the Pakistani state and responsible for numerous terror attacks in Pakistani cities. The TTP has also widened its agenda by claiming responsibility for the botched New York bombing, a development some analysts blame on the TTP leadership's close proximity to al-Qaeda in North Waziristan and their adoption of its trans-national ideology.

Differentiating those it deems "good" from those deemed "bad" Taliban among the hodgepodge of fragmented militant groups will be increasingly difficult for the Pakistani military, says author and Taliban expert Ahmed Rashid. "Nobody really seems to have a clue what's going on there," he says. "It's not clear exactly now what the leadership is."

The expectation is that diverse militant groups will quickly close ranks against any ground offensive by the Pakistani military, says Muhammad Amir Rana, a terrorism analyst and the director of the Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies. Even a limited or selective military campaign targeting only the TTP will be very difficult. "How can you somehow do it [while] keeping the other groups impartial?" he says. "You will provide the opportunity for them to unite."

One likely effect of a North Waziristan offensive is a flood of people displaced by the fighting, which will also strain a government still trying to repatriate some of the 2.3 million people forced to flee its earlier offensives in FATA and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (formerly the North West Frontier Province). Another consequence is likely to be an escalation in retaliation through terror attacks in Pakistan's cities, and perhaps internationally as well. "My biggest fear," says Riffat Hussein, chairman of the Department of Defense and Strategic Studies at Islamabad's Quaid-e-Azam University, "is if the leadership of some of these groups operating in FATA move into urban areas and set up shop there and engage in urban terrorism." he says.

While most analysts agree that North Waziristan's militants can't be allowed to operate unmolested, prospects for an offensive may also dim when the U.S. and its allies begin their campaign to restore control of Kandahar in neighboring Afghanistan. "Once [Kandahar] is launched, the Pakistani Army will focus on Balochistan so that these Afghan Taliban don't move into the province," says Hussein, referring to the Pakistani area that is home to violent Baloch separatist groups as well as the Mullah Omar-led Quetta Shura. "That may give the army a reason to take its eyes off FATA."

The benchmark of success in anti-Taliban operations is also murky. Although the Army routed the militants in Swat last year, Rashid warns that they are mobilizing for a comeback. That's why the military is keeping some 30,000 troops there. The answer, says Samina Ahmed, South Asia project director for the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, is the political reintegration of the regions where the Taliban is operating. "If you have deliberately isolated a territory from your country and you treat the people who live there as second-class citizens, [and] you deprive them of the protections of the state... and then you say 'You should be good citizens' — you can't have it both ways," she says.

Such reintegration is a long way off, of course, and for now, the fear is that a military offensive in North Waziristan is unlikely to put an end to militancy in Pakistan.