Offensive expected to be limited

Pakistan's much-vaunted military operation in the South Waziristan tribal area will be limited and not an all-out offensive, defence experts say.

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ISLAMABAD // Pakistan's much-vaunted military operation in the South Waziristan tribal area will be limited and not an all-out offensive, defence experts say. Pakistan's military, already locked in an eight-week-old offensive against Islamist militants in and around the Swat valley, has opened up a second front against Baitullah Mehsud's Pakistani Taliban faction in South Waziristan.

The army said that more than 1,500 insurgents and 128 soldiers have been killed during operations in Swat and neighbouring Dir and Buner. But the hunt for Mr Mehsud will be a much lower-scale operation, according to Lt Gen Talat Masood, a retired army officer and a defence analyst. "They have got to get hold of Waziristan as it is the root of all problems and the centre of Talibanisation that has reached other parts of Pakistan," Lt Gen Masood said.

"But that does not mean a major offensive like in Swat. It will be designed to push against the leadership, securing roads and strategic points and to gradually expand the army's sphere of influence." The mountains and fortress-like compounds of Pakistan's seven lawless tribal agencies, which border Afghanistan, are believed by western intelligence agencies to provide sanctuary for al Qa'eda and Taliban militants.

Since the US-backed jihad against Soviet forces in Afghanistan in the 1980s, the area, particularly South and North Waziristan, has been a hub of militant activity. At the end of 2001 Pakistani security forces first entered the tribal area to capture militants fleeing US-led fighting against the Taliban across the border in Afghanistan. Since then, the army has conducted numerous unsuccessful operations in Waziristan, all of which ended in peace deals.

The army signed peace treaties with Mr Mehsud in 2005 and 2007 that he flouted, mounting continued attacks on Pakistani security forces. He has claimed responsibility for a wave of terrorist attacks across Pakistan. However, he has denied accusations that he was responsible for the assassination of the former prime minister Benazir Bhutto in Dec 2007. But a retired Pakistani army general, who did not want to be named, said that although Pakistan will go after Mr Mehsud, it will leave alone other powerful commanders whose guns are trained on coalition forces across the border.

"I don't think they will go after the major players. They have some sort of relationship with them. They owe them something," he said. The army is engaged in buying off other major Taliban commanders in the area, including Sirajuddin Haqqani and Gul Bahadur in North Waziristan and Maulvi Nazeer in the south, to prevent them from fighting alongside Mr Mehsud. Mr Mehsud also faces an internal challenge from a fellow tribesman and militia leader, Qari Zainuddin, and a neighbouring commander, Turkistan Bhittani.

Lt Gen Masood said he believed that the army had reached an understanding with Mr Nazeer, whom it had previously paid and supported to drive out a group of Uzbek militants. Islamabad remains reluctant to move against the Afghan Taliban, led by Mullah Mohammed Omar or the Haqqani network, an independent insurgent network in Afghanistan, as it views them as useful in countering the influence of its arch rival India in Afghanistan, according to analysts.

"Indians do have an influence in Afghanistan and Karzai has a friendly relationship with India," said Caroline Wadhams, a national security analyst at the Center for American Progress in Washington. "They are scared that the US will get out of Afghanistan and that Afghanistan becomes more and more of an Indian satellite. So they keep these groups of Afghan Taliban around that are attacking into Afghanistan to stem the growing influence of India in Afghanistan."

Shamim Shahid, a Pakistani journalist and expert on the Taliban, said Mr Mehsud had ignored warnings given to him by Mr Omar to halt attacks in Pakistan. He said Mr Mehsud was now in the process of being isolated by all other Taliban commanders. Mr Mehsud has apparently won unwanted attention for the Pakistani Taliban by his group's involvement in kidnapping local students from Razmak College and running a training camp for suicide bombers.

Mr Shahid said local sources claimed that Mr Mehsud has already fled South Waziristan. He was reported to have gone to North Waziristan, where he held meetings with al Qa'eda and Afghan Taliban leaders, and where he also met the Swat Taliban leader, Mullah Fazlullah. A retired senior general, Alam Jan Mehsud, who comes from the area, said the Mehsud tribe had made sacrifices for Pakistan but that Mr Mehsud was "playing into the hands of non-Mehsud extremists".

Yesterday the operation in South Waziristan was in its formative stage. Pakistani fighter jets and artillery stepped up attacks in South Waziristan and about 40,000 locals were fleeing the area, according to the United Nations. Up to 21 people were reported to have been killed as fighter jets pounded Mr Mehsud's hideouts. Nearly two million people have fled fighting in north-west Pakistan, most since early May when the military began an offensive against Taliban insurgents in Swat.

Last week, a military statement said 37 militants died when troops retaliated after they tried to block the main South Waziristan road near the town of Sarwaki. They were the first militant casualties of the offensive in South Waziristan to be confirmed by the army.