Pakistan Launches Ground Offensive in South Waziristan

By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, October 18, 2009

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, Oct. 17 -- The Pakistani military launched a major ground offensive Saturday in the insurgent haven of South Waziristan, starting a much-awaited fight that could define the nation's increasingly bloody domestic struggle against Islamist extremism.

Pakistani officials said nearly 30,000 troops were deployed in the Taliban and al-Qaeda stronghold, from which militants have planned a two-week-long string of attacks against the nation's formidable security forces.

The assaults have killed nearly 200 people and have further destabilized a weak government that the United States has pressed to take a tougher stand against militancy. Now, with public alarm rising and winter snowfall approaching, Pakistani officials indicated they could wait no longer.

"There has to be consensus in the face of what is clearly now a war," said Sherry Rehman, a ruling party lawmaker. "We have to treat this as a battle for Pakistan's survival."

The offensive is a gamble. Pakistani forces earlier retreated after three far smaller incursions into South Waziristan, an essentially ungoverned terrain of ridges and peaks that is unfamiliar to most except the tribes that live there. It is a potential vortex for the Pakistani army, which has been trained to battle archenemy India on the plains of the Punjab province, not conduct alpine counterinsurgency operations.

To succeed, experts on the insurgency said, the military will need to stunt the leadership of the feared Mehsud network of the Pakistani Taliban, which has regrouped since its chief was killed by a U.S. missile strike in August. The military will have to do that without alienating civilians in the area, they said, and before winter sets in. The operation is expected to last six to eight weeks, said Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, a military spokesman.

"The stakes for both sides are enormous," said Bruce Hoffman, a counterinsurgency expert at Georgetown University. "The attacks of the past couple weeks demonstrate that the militants are really concerned . . . and that will have increased the ardor of the Pakistani forces to succeed. But it's also an indication of why they can't fail -- the threat is already manifest."

American officials have said that U.S.-led military efforts in neighboring Afghanistan can work only if Pakistan, a U.S. ally, eliminates militant havens from its border region. Experts said cornering the Pakistani Taliban could also help the United States better target its drone strikes in the tribal areas along the Afghan border, which Pakistan says have "seriously impeded" its own battle against terrorism by killing civilians.

Although the Bush administration began the drone attacks, President Obama has authorized a sharp increase in the missile launches. U.S. intelligence officials have said that the CIA-directed attacks -- more than 40 this year -- have killed at least a dozen insurgent leaders.

In addition to strikes against al-Qaeda, Pakistani insurgent leader Baitullah Mehsud was said to have been killed in an August attack. That strike was seen as an incentive to the Pakistanis to launch a ground assault in the mountainous region where headquarters of the Pakistani Taliban, al-Qaeda and other insurgent groups are located.

While problems remain, both U.S. and Pakistani officials say that intelligence cooperation between the two governments has improved, with Pakistan aiding in drone targeting. But such cooperation is rarely made public in Pakistan, where anti-Americanism runs high. The administration was silent as the offensive got underway.

After months of targeting South Waziristan with aerial strikes, Pakistani troops stormed the region from three sides, backed by jets and helicopter gunships, military officials said. A senior military official said soldiers were targeting areas held by the Mehsud tribe and expected to battle as many as 10,000 Taliban insurgents, bolstered by about 2,000 "foreign fighters." The official did not specify their origins.

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