Pakistan has finally begun a long overdue military offensive against the Taliban in the South Waziristan tribal region. The decision to take the battle into the Pakistan Taliban heartland came after the militants made clear they are now in a full-scale war against the state. The Army has hesitated to go into South Waziristan, evidently apprehensive of getting bogged down in what has sometimes been described as an ‘unwinnable’ war. Previous offensives in the tribal region ended with the military making peace deals with the militants, abandoning the area to the Taliban, and allowing them to entrench themselves there. It was also that the military did not seem entirely convinced of the threat posed to Pakistan by the Taliban. In 2008, the Inter-Services Intelligence chief, Lt. Gen Ahmed Shuja Pasha, famously referred to the Taliban leader, Beithullah Mehsud, who was killed two months ago in a U.S. missile strike, as a “patriotic” Pakistani. But the recent attacks on the Pakistan Army headquarters and in Lahore left the military with little choice but to act against a wellspring of unrelenting terrorism within Pakistan. From the time the Taliban virtually took over Swat earlier this year, public opinion has favoured an all-out military operation. The United States too was eager to see the Pakistan Army launch the operation. The violent agenda of the South Waziristan militants is aimed more at Pakistan, but it is clear that the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan does the bidding of the al-Qaeda — providing it and the Afghan Taliban important back office support from its stronghold while receiving arms and money from them.

Can the military offensive succeed? The Pakistan Army declared victory in Swat, but it is widely believed that the militants simply melted away into the mountains. Very few of the Swat Taliban leaders were caught. South Waziristan is a larger area with an estimated 10,000 battle-hardened militants and a terrain more treacherous. The other question is whether an operation in South Waziristan is sufficient in itself. In the last few terror attacks, the Taliban’s alliances with a number of militant groups based in South Punjab, including anti-India groups such as the Jaish-e-Mohammed, have emerged in clear light. Predictably, the Army has downplayed the significance of these linkages, emphasising that South Waziristan alone is the ‘centre of gravity of terrorism.’ It is quite conceivable that the country’s security establishment remains reluctant to root out the jihadist militants who have served as its allies against India. What it needs to realise is that it can no longer afford to overlook this threat to state and society.

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Terror unlimited October 30, 2009

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