Gains in Pakistan Fuel Pentagon Optimism for Pursuing Al-Qaeda

By Joby Warrick and R. Jeffrey Smith
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, June 13, 2009

Progress in Pakistan's two-month-old military campaign against insurgents in the Swat Valley has provoked Pentagon optimism that government forces will soon move decisively into the more rugged frontier region where al-Qaeda's leaders are based, perhaps curtailing a wave of suicide bombings in Pakistan and Afghanistan, defense officials said yesterday.

The defense officials struck a laudatory tone in describing the prospects for military success in Pakistan, but other administration officials in recent days have expressed less confidence that the Pakistani military can simultaneously hold the territory it has won in Swat and provide sufficient troops for a new offensive to begin in South Waziristan. While government troops have cleared the population centers in Swat and adjoining districts, senior administration officials said the battle for those areas will not be considered won until the displaced population -- more than 2 million people -- feels it is safe to return. That will not happen, officials said, unless government forces remain in place to protect them from reinfiltrating Taliban fighters still believed to be hiding in high mountain reaches.

Two previous government assaults against insurgents, in 2004-2005 and last year, had little success because the insurgents hid and reemerged after Pakistani forces withdrew. But with improved tactics, larger forces and higher public support for a more sustained campaign, the Pakistani army is better positioned to strike than it has been in nearly a decade, military officials told news reporters at a briefing yesterday. The administration is anxious to convince members of Congress, who still must vote on supplemental war spending this year and increased funding for Pakistan in the future and who have voiced skepticism over Pakistan's long-term commitment to defeat the extremists.

The defense officials said the principal Pakistani aim in isolating and eventually striking against insurgents inside Waziristan, a tribally governed region on the Afghanistan border, would be to neutralize the threat posed by Baitullah Mehsud, the Taliban warlord who U.S. officials believe was behind the assassination in 2007 of former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto.

That aim overlaps but does not precisely coincide with Washington's desire for Pakistani forces to gain sufficient control of the rugged terrain in Waziristan to deny its use as a haven by al-Qaeda fighters and leaders, apparently including Osama bin Laden. "There are some groups we'd like Pakistan to take more action against," a senior defense official said in a separate briefing for reporters yesterday.

But the United States blames Mehsud -- whose militias the officials said are supplied, trained and financed by al-Qaeda -- for overseeing a factory-like system to create and dispatch suicide bombers throughout the region. The officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were providing sensitive intelligence information, said good evidence had been accumulated that Mehsud and his allies were buying children at Islamic schools to use them as suicide bombers, but the officials declined to describe any of the evidence in detail. One official said that undermining Mehsud "will have an impact on suicide bombs" in both countries.

While the government has intimated a Waziristan campaign is imminent, it has given no time frame. The government has few facilities in the high-altitude regions of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, and troops fighting there are "far beyond their supply lines," said an administration official, also speaking on the condition of anonymity.

The senior defense official said he does not see evidence that al-Qaeda leaders are leaving the area. "I don't think it's accurate to say there is any significant movement of senior leadership outside the region and particularly Pakistan," he said.

Another defense official said the Pakistani military effort is working because "they have learned their lessons and changed their approach, and are hoping for more success."

Staff writers Ann Scott Tyson and Karen DeYoung contributed to this report.

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