Pakistan Treads Warily as New Fight Looms
Preliminary Efforts Against Fighters in Tribal Waziristan Yield Mixed Results
By Pamela Constable - Washington Post, June 29, 2009
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, June 28 -- More than 70 years ago, the British army went to war against tribal forces loyal to a charismatic religious figure in what is now the Pakistani region of Waziristan. The ensuing guerrilla conflict lasted more than a decade. The British troops, though far more numerous and better armed, never captured the renegade leader and finally withdrew from the region.
Today, the Pakistani army is preparing to launch a major operation against another warrior in Waziristan, the ruthless Islamist commander Baitullah Mehsud. Taking a lesson from history and its own recent failures, the army is attempting to isolate and weaken Mehsud before sending its troops into battle.
Every day for the past two weeks, Pakistani bombers have crisscrossed Mehsud's territory, pounding his suspected hideouts and killing dozens of his fighters, including 16 who officials said died in bombing raids Saturday. Military forces have also surrounded the region to choke off Mehsud's access to weapons and fuel from outside.
"We are trying to shape the environment before we move in for the fight," Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, the chief military spokesman, said in an interview. "We are also trying to minimize the loss of life. Ours is the only institution that can stand up to the militants, but public support is crucial. When we do move in, it must only be against Baitullah and his group. We cannot afford to provoke a tribal uprising."
So far, the effort has produced mixed results. On Tuesday, a Mehsud loyalist assassinated a key pro-government tribal leader in South Waziristan, and U.S. drone strikes killed 46 people at the funeral of a slain Mehsud commander, muddying the waters of tribal loyalties and antipathies.
"It is now clear that any tribals who side with the army will be violently suppressed," said Rifaat Hussain, a professor of defense studies at Quaid-i-Azam University here. "They may tacitly support the state, but they will not dare actively support it." He also noted that many army officers are from the same ethnic Pashtun group as Mehsud, making them reluctant to take him on.
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