Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari faces a risky choice as his country’s military finishes driving Taliban militants from the Swat Valley: whether to push into mountains where al-Qaeda leaders may also be holed up.
The U.S., which has pledged $1.5 billion in annual aid provided Pakistan tackle extremists, says insurgents have regrouped in the craggy tribal areas of the northwest. From there, they threaten the nuclear-armed nation’s security and hamper the fight in neighboring Afghanistan.
Taking the conflict into an area where U.S. security officials say Osama bin Laden and Afghan Taliban chief Mullah Omar are hiding would aid President Barack Obama’s regional strategy of expanding military power in Afghanistan while bolstering the Pakistani government with economic support. The danger is an upsurge in retaliatory bombings like that of a luxury hotel in Peshawar yesterday, which killed 12 people.
“Success in Swat will be crucial for finishing the battle against the Taliban,” said Ishtiaq Ahmed, associate professor of international relations at Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad. “The consequences of not finishing or expanding the operation are far more dangerous than the backlash. It is a risk worth taking, but the government needs to boost its security.”
Zardari, 52, and 56-year-old army chief Ashfaq Parvez Kayani moved troops six weeks ago into the Swat valley, 250 kilometers (156 miles) northwest of Islamabad, after Pakistan- based Taliban militants breached a peace accord.
“We are hoping that the offensive continues to the point that these militants in this region are defeated,” said Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell. The U.S. is working to provide Pakistani forces “with whatever they need within reason.”
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat, said in an interview yesterday that the Pakistan military is “doing better in terms of taking action against the militants. They have taken on the Taliban in a very significant way, with some success over the last few weeks.”
Extra spending to spur growth and caring for 2 million war refugees may widen Pakistan’s budget deficit for the year starting July 1 to as much as 5.5 percent of gross domestic product, Shaukat Tarin, finance adviser to the prime minister, said in an interview. That would exceed an International Monetary Fund-set target of 4.6 percent.
The army says more than 1,300 militants have been killed, while 105 soldiers have died in the offensive, and if Zardari extends the conflict to tribal regions like South and North Waziristan it will be an even tougher and more costly fight.
In 2003, when Pakistan first sent troops into these areas to confront Taliban and al-Qaeda militants, hundreds of soldiers were killed and others taken hostage as tribal chiefs who opposed the advance backed their fellow Pashtuns in the Taliban.
Ahmed said the chances of a successful campaign were better now, with tribesmen less likely to support the insurgents. Still, the region guards its semi-autonomy. The central government is represented in each tribal agency by one agent under an accord between elders and Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, after independence 62 years ago.
Missile attacks by U.S. unmanned drones over the last two years in the tribal region have drawn criticism from Zardari’s government, which says civilian casualties undermine the fight against insurgents.
Kayani, who banned army involvement in politics after the unpopular military rule of former President Pervez Musharraf, said on June 4 that the Swat offensive had “decisively turned” the battle with the Taliban.
That could allow the army to expand beyond Swat, said Mahmood Shah, a retired army brigadier and security analyst based in Peshawar. Hunting militants in regions bordering Afghanistan “is going to happen, as this is the big plan. Swat is just a brick in the overall design. The army will take 8 to 10 more weeks to eliminate the militants from Swat,” he said.
Interior Minister Rehman Malik said June 7 that anywhere “the writ of the government is challenged, we will be there.”
Pakistani officials say they have no information on bin Laden’s location. U.S. intelligence officials have long said extremist leaders are hiding in the tribal regions.
The military will need to establish the government’s authority in the northwest, Quaid-e-Azam University’s Ahmed said. Intelligence reports indicate that Baitullah Mehsud, the chief of Pakistan’s Taliban, operates out of South Waziristan into other tribal regions like Bajaur and Mohmand, he said.
Mehsud has vowed to avenge the army offensive. Late yesterday, militants drove a truck packed with explosives into the luxury Pearl Continental Hotel in the city of Peshawar where dozens of United Nations officials were gathered, killing two relief workers and at least 10 other people.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called it a “heinous terrorist attack which no cause can justify.”
In the last week of May, bombs tore through three Pakistani cities, killing at least 47 people and wounding hundreds. Malik has said the majority of terrorist attacks are planned in South Waziristan.
“The initiative is now in the hands of the military,” said Talat Masood, a security analyst and a retired general in Islamabad, adding that it will have to kill or capture “the top five or six Taliban leaders” in Swat or elsewhere in Pakistan to disrupt attacks.
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