Islamabad: Consolidating military gains in Swat and worries about Taliban spillover from south Afghanistan are clouding Pakistan’s offensive against the country’s most wanted warlord, analysts say.
In mid-June, the military said it had received orders and was preparing to launch an offensive against Pakistani Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud and his network in the South Waziristan tribal district bordering Afghanistan.
Troops have sealed off much of the eastern border between South Waziristan and areas under government control, and carried out air raids in what the military calls softening up for a full-scale ground operation.
Pakistan says it has eliminated the Taliban in a military offensive launched last April in northwestern districts Buner, Dir and Swat, which rendered nearly two million people displaced.
But deadly skirmishes continue, raising fears that the Taliban escaped into the mountains and might return, as after previous offensives.
Signs of battle were visible on the road winding up to Swat at the weekend. South of the valley at Batkhela, two bodies were dumped by the road. Residents said they were Taliban killed by the army.
Another body lay in the Swat town of Marghazar. Residents identified him as a local Taliban commander who was captured and killed as a warning.
“The army has to consolidate Swat and help maintain security so that IDPs (internally displaced persons) return without any fear that the Taliban would come back,” former interior minister Hamid Nawaz told AFP.
“My assessment is that the army will remain in Swat until the civilian set-up is also consolidated and an intelligence network is in place,” added Nawaz, who is also a retired lieutenant general.
Last week US regional envoy Richard Holbrooke heard concerns in Pakistan that 4,000 US Marines operating further south in Afghanistan will push Taliban across the border and inflame in insurgency in Baluchistan.
When the US airborne assault began, Pakistan said it redeployed troops along the Afghan border to stop Taliban fighters fleeing into its southwest, ripped apart by Islamist, sectarian and regional violence.
“There can be a spillover of the Helmand operation into Pakistan and the military has to guard the border as well,” said Nawaz.
“But in South Waziristan, firefights continue and strikes are being carried out against militants with a view to cause maximum damage.”
Mehsud has two prices on his head — five million dollars from the United States, which considers him a key Al-Qaeda facilitator, and 615,000 dollars from the Pakistani government.
Suspected US missiles and Pakistani air strikes target his strongholds but so far he has escaped harm.
“Baitullah Mehsud is one of the most dangerous and odious people in the entire region,” said Holbrooke, but added he thought a Waziristan offensive had been delayed because of operations in Swat.
“The highest priority right now has to be to secure the areas in Swat and Buner as the refugees return… So maybe they’re delaying their offensive.
The Taliban denies claims that Maulana Fazlullah, architect of the Swat uprising, was wounded and threatened renewed holy war.
“Northern Swat is still insecure and the leadership, Fazlullah, is not captured, so there’s a long way to go there,” recognised Holbrooke.
He said Pakistan was busy coordinating its military activities with NATO troops in Afghanistan, where the United States was determined not to repeat mistakes of the past when Taliban escaped.
Defence analyst Talat Masood said “this could be the consideration,” but argued the army would continue targeted air strikes against Mehsud’s network, concentrated on perfect guerrilla terrain.
“They have always been hesitant to launch a full-scale operation in South Waziristan, because the conditions there are very different than Swat,” Masood said. “They would continue with limited targeted action.”
Military spokesman Major General Athar Abbas ruled out any question that Waziristan was on the back burner.
“Military operations are of different forms… The areas around South Waziristan are sealed and aerial targeting is being done,” Abbas said.
“We will decide upon the ground offensive at an appropriate time. We do not start operations because someone or media reports say so,” he said.