Deadly Ambush Could Indicate Threat to Pakistan's Army

By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, June 30, 2009

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, June 29 -- The Pakistani military is at war with the Taliban, but the ambush that killed 16 soldiers in the tribal region of North Waziristan on Sunday was still somewhat unexpected.

"There is no operation which was either planned or being conducted in North Waziristan," Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, a Pakistani military spokesman, told reporters Monday. "This attack was completely unprovoked."

The Taliban assault on an army convoy passing through the village of Inzar Kas was one of the deadliest incidents for the military during its two-month-old offensive against the insurgents. But to some analysts, it also served as a warning of a bigger threat -- the possibility that disparate Taliban factions might be closing ranks to battle the army in Pakistan.

The group that has asserted responsibility for Sunday's ambush is led by Hafiz Gul Bahadur, one of the many militant commanders in Pakistan and Afghanistan who fight -- sometimes against each other -- under the banner of the Taliban. In early 2008, Bahadur's group struck a peace deal with the local administration in North Waziristan, a mountainous tribal region along the Afghan border where the Pakistani government exerts little control. But a spokesman for his group announced Monday that because of U.S. drone bombings and Pakistani military activity, that peace has been shattered.

"We will carry out attacks on the security forces," Hamdullah Hamdi told reporters.

The failure of the accord in North Waziristan is a blow to the government as it plans a major operation in neighboring South Waziristan, home of Baitullah Mehsud, Pakistan's main Taliban foe and the man blamed for multiple suicide bombings and the assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto. The region to the north is important because military strategists expect to use it as a transit route for ground troops and supplies.

Bahadur's call to arms followed another announcement by a formerly pro-government Taliban commander in South Waziristan, Maulvi Nazir, who last week warned that his fighters intend to target the military in response to its offensive and the drone strikes.

"These two, Maulvi Nazir and Hafiz Gul Bahadur, they were focused on Afghanistan," said Mahmood Shah, a security analyst and retired Pakistani army brigadier with experience in the northwestern tribal areas. "What we've heard is they've called back their fighters from Afghanistan and are bringing them to Pakistan."

Earlier last week, the government suffered yet another setback to its efforts to turn other fighters against Mehsud, when Taliban commander Qari Zainuddin, an enemy of Mehsud's, was killed by one of his own security guards.

"It was too naive to think he could defeat Baitullah Mehsud," Shah said of Zainuddin.

The string of developments suggests that the government's new efforts to take on Mehsud in South Waziristan could prove more challenging than its recent push into the Swat Valley, where military officials say they have nearly regained the territory from the Taliban. For the past two weeks, aircraft have strafed Mehsud's territory in preparation for a ground assault against his thousands of followers.

"The militants' attacks on military convoys and installations in North Waziristan are part of a well-thought-out Taliban strategy to expand the war to other territories from South Waziristan, where the army is currently operating," said Talat Masood, a defense analyst and retired general. "We will see more such attacks in coming days."

Special correspondents Haq Nawaz Khan and Shaiq Hussain contributed to this report.

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