Pakistan pauses in pursuit of Taliban

Washington Post:

Soon after Pakistan launched its offensive against the Taliban this spring, President Asif Ali Zardari declared that the mission would go beyond pushing the Islamist militia out of the Swat Valley. "We're going to go into Waziristan," he said.

More than two months later, that still has not come to pass. Instead, the planned invasion of South Waziristan, a Taliban and al-Qaeda sanctuary along the Afghanistan border, has been delayed by the refugee crisis spawned by fighting in Swat, an overstretched military unwilling to let its guard down with India and the difficulty in isolating the Taliban commander Baitullah Mehsud, according to Pakistani and American officials.

Pakistan's military has blockaded the tribal district and bombed it from the air, and it insists that the ground assault will proceed. But as the clock ticks, military analysts worry that fighting in the mountains will be more difficult as the weather turns cold in the fall. The delay has raised questions about Pakistan's commitment to waging war against Taliban fighters the state has nurtured in the past.

"It's an insane dream to expect anything different from the Pakistani government," said Ali Wazir, a South Waziristan native and a politician with the secular Awami National Party. "The Taliban are the brainchildren of the Pakistan army for the last 30 years. They are their own people. Could you kill your own brother?"

Mehsud is believed to be responsible for the assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, as well as many of the recent suicide bombings in Pakistan. American officials, however, said they have not urged Pakistan to launch the operation because of the scope of problems in the Swat Valley, where 2 million refugees were displaced by the ongoing military operation there.

"Baitullah Mehsud is a dreadful man, and his elimination is an imperative. However, the first imperative is to secure the areas the refugees are going back into," Richard C. Holbrooke, the U.S. envoy to the region, said in an interview.

Although Holbrooke said it could be beneficial to have simultaneous offensives -- the U.S. Marines on the Afghanistan side of the border and the Pakistani army in the tribal regions to the east -- the greater concern is unfinished business elsewhere. "Why would I push them to start an offensive when they have 2 million people they have to protect first?" Holbrooke said.

The Pakistani military operation against the Taliban was planned to unfold in three phases, starting in April with the Frontier Corps paramilitary force moving into areas around the Swat Valley, the former tourist destination where the Taliban seized control. The following month, two Pakistani divisions, or about 40,000 soldiers, led a ground operation into the valley. They have since regained control, although fighting continues and the Taliban leadership there remains largely intact. The third and most difficult phase was to be a ground operation into South Waziristan.

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These pauses give pause to the question of whether Pakistan is serious about taking out the Taliban. If they could push a coordinated attack at the same time the US is pushing an offensive in Helmand it would put great pressure on the enemy and make it harder for the Taliban to resist both.

There is some concern for the refugees now going back into Swat, but eh Pakistan army could do both if it would pull more troops from its border with India. Since taking out the Taliban religious bigots is also in India's interest they should be able to give Pakistan the reassurances it needs for such a move.

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