Pakistan is planning a military offensive of unknown strength in its restive North Waziristan region, home to numerous militant groups including the fearsome Haqqani network, United States Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen has said.
Admiral Mullen spoke of the planned operation to television networks on Monday. “It is a very important fight and a very important operation,” he said.
He and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met senior Pakistani leaders a few days earlier to “show the strength in terms of our commitment [because] we're going through a difficult patch right now after the bin Laden operation”, said Admiral Mullen.
Barring the general reiteration of commitment to eliminating terrorist havens on its soil, there was no official word from either the Pakistani government or the military about launching an operation in North Waziristan.
However, the armed services were reportedly preparing for a two-pronged action in the tribal agency — using air power to “soften up” targets before ground troops move in. Apparently aid agencies have also been alerted to prepare for an internal displacement situation.
While Admiral Mullen said in Washington that he “did hear from the [Pakistani] military leadership their continued commitment to look ahead and work with us and we think that's important”, all indications were that Islamabad was yet to decide on a full-scale operation that would include action against groups like the Haqqani network.
While the terror outfit has repeatedly targeted U.S. troops in Afghanistan from its hideout in North Waziristan, it has never struck within Pakistan.
Taking on the Haqqani network has been a long-standing demand of the U.S. It was repeated again last week during Secretary of State Ms. Clinton's seven-hour visit to Islamabad, where she acknowledged Pakistan's role in the Afghan reconciliation process but underscored Islamabad's responsibility toward stopping insurgency west of the Durand Line.
Yet, on Monday, Admiral Mullen sought to downplay the impression of tensions arising in those discussions, arguing media reports were “overstated”. “We had a very good, frank, open discussion that touched on a wide range of issues,” he said.
Apart from the reluctance to give up “strategic assets” — as networks like the Haqqani group are described within the community of security analysts — capacity constraints are also being cited as reason for a selective operation.
The Army is still not in a position to withdraw from areas it wrested from terrorists and is apprehensive of over-stretching itself in case of a full-scale operation.
Admiral Mullen conceded that in the U.S. “one of the things that does not get enough focus is the sacrifices that the Pakistani military has made over the course of the last several years”. They have lost thousands of soldiers in this fight while “10-plus thousand” were wounded, he said.