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U.S. and Pakistan adapt their approach on divisive issue of North Waziristan

By Karen DeYoung and Griff Witte
Wednesday, April 14, 2010; A01

RAZMAK, PAKISTAN -- A few miles from this isolated garrison town, a shallow, east-west gorge marks the administrative border between South and North Waziristan. In U.S. eyes, it is also the dividing line between the good Pakistan that cooperates with American counterterrorism goals and the intransigent one that charts its own course.

To the south are deserted villages and ruined buildings, remnants that reflect the aggressive course that Washington has urged Islamabad to take. The jagged peaks and winding valleys controlled until last fall by a faction of the Pakistani Taliban are now in the hands of the Pakistani army; the family compound of Baitullah Mehsud, whose forces carried out attacks across Pakistan, has been reduced to rubble.

So far, however, Pakistan has resisted U.S. appeals to turn its attention to the north, thought to be the base for separate groups of Taliban fighters, whose attacks are aimed primarily at American troops in Afghanistan. It is also thought to be the base for al-Qaeda's leadership. To launch a major campaign in North Waziristan this spring, as the Obama administration has proposed, would be impractical and strategically unwise, the Pakistani army says.

U.S. officials have expressed frustration about Pakistan's reluctance. But a rare visit to the restricted region by two Washington Post reporters offered a fresh vantage point into Pakistani thinking, and it suggested that the two sides are trying to find common ground in addressing what Washington sees as the epicenter of the terrorist threat.

"There has to be a balance between foreign requirements and the local environment," said Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, a Pakistani military spokesman. "I think what the Americans have come to understand is that when [their] options are not working, maybe it is time to try another way."

Pakistani officials said it was inconceivable that any more troops would be pulled away from their eastern defenses against rival India, at a time when nearly a third of Pakistan's half-million-strong army is deployed against insurgents in and around the region, known as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). An offensive in North Waziristan, the Pakistani officials said, would risk the gains so recently won in the south, because it would require pulling troops from that region.

They also said that they think it would be possible to enlist the Waziri tribes of the north in the fight against insurgents but that any attempt to rush them would backfire.

U.S. officials continue to think that Pakistan's reluctance stems largely from its belief that the Afghan Taliban, which the army does not see as a threat to Pakistan, could be useful in influencing future events in Afghanistan. But after months of publicly questioning Pakistan's motives, the Obama administration appears to have decided to try a different tack, voicing new appreciation for Pakistan's military accomplishments in South Waziristan and other operations last year, including in the Swat Valley.

"We need to give them credit," a senior U.S. official said of the Pakistanis, and trust that they understand the "culture, history and geography" of North Waziristan better than Washington does.

At a rudimentary army field hospital here on a recent warm and overcast afternoon, one dead and two wounded soldiers arrived on bloody stretchers, casualties of a nearby firefight with the Taliban. The clearly audible battle appeared to be underway about a mile away, in South Waziristan.

"There are still pockets" of resistance, Col. Muhammad Asif said. "They sneak in, fire and run away."

Low-tech efforts

Asif is commander of the military camp on the edge of the small town of Razmak. The camp, a collection of low buildings surrounded by manicured lawns, was set up by the British in the early 1920s, part of then-British India's defenses against invading Afghan tribesmen. "The British did the first counterinsurgency operations here," said Asif, a no-nonsense officer who sports a thick mustache and wears a beret with his neat khaki uniform.

Pakistan's counterinsurgency efforts here appear to have more in common with those of the British nearly a century ago than they do with the sophisticated, technology-heavy U.S. operations across the border in Afghanistan, about 25 miles to the west. Asif's troops are lightly armed and wear no body armor or helmets.

At the wheel of a sport-utility vehicle, with truckloads of armed troops in front and behind, the colonel took the visiting reporters on a personally guided tour along the unpaved roads winding through the nearby valleys. Above the occasional racket of distant small-arms fire, he pointed out destroyed structures that he said had been occupied by insurgents.

A squat residential compound used as an indoctrination center for fighters was painted with scenes of waterfalls, flowers and green pastures depicting the paradise that the Taliban said awaited martyrs. Alongside the pictures were graffiti encouraging the fighters to die for their cause. "Best wishes to the suicide bombers," read one.

Swinging onto a steep, narrow path, Asif drove up to one of the small stone bunkers that dot the surrounding ridges and mountaintops. Many were part of the original British picket lines, built to control the heights. They served the same purpose for the Taliban.

All of the posts are now occupied by Pakistani troops, Asif said, but more U.S. equipment could greatly enhance their efforts. The United States has agreed to provide Pakistan unarmed surveillance drones and to step up the supply of night-vision goggles and communications equipment.

Concerns about South

Asif said the army is ready to leave South Waziristan as soon as security is assured and the civilian government arrives with reconstruction and development aid. So far, there is no evidence of a civilian presence or of a promised U.S.-funded road project.

Security is eventually to be turned over to the Frontier Corps, the traditional government security force that supplements the army here. U.S. Special Forces troops are training Frontier Corps members at a base near the northwestern city of Peshawar.

Residents of the valleys, many of whom have been living in government camps since the fall, are agitating to be allowed to return home, even as their leaders express little confidence in the government's ability to provide security or sustenance.

"We . . . are ready to take control of our areas and work for maintaining law and order in Waziristan under tribal traditional laws," Noor Khan Mehsud, a tribal leader, said in an interview. "We know the security situation is not satisfactory, but we have no choice."

The Pakistani thinking

Miram Shah, North Waziristan's capital, is the logistical hub for Pakistani military operations in the north and south. About 2,000 Pakistani troops are stationed at the lightly defended base there. There are few fortifications beyond the earthen berms that border a concrete landing pad where two aging Cobra helicopter gunships were parked on a recent visit.

Abbas, the military spokesman, said it may be true, as U.S. officials believe, that al-Qaeda leaders are being harbored in Mir Ali, about 15 miles east of Miram Shah. But he said given Mir Ali's large population, an attack on the town "would open North Waziristan as a new front" that Pakistan is not yet prepared to take on.

The Obama administration believes the Taliban-allied network of Afghan fighter Jalaluddin Haqqani is based in North Waziristan, along with other insurgent groups, and has urged Pakistan to move against them. "He's on our target list," a Pakistani intelligence official said, but "we've raided his madrassa five times" and haven't found him there.

Besides, Abbas said, "Haqqani is an Afghan. Our intelligence says he spends at least half his time in Khost, Paktika and Paktia," the Afghan provinces closest to the FATA, where his forces regularly challenge U.S. troops. If Haqqani were so easy to catch, Abbas and other Pakistani officials said, why haven't the Americans, with their superior surveillance, found him.

Officials here acknowledge a long-standing relationship with Haqqani, dating from the fight against the Soviet Union's occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, but deny that they still have control over him. "Whatever leverage we had over him in the past is gone," the intelligence official said. "If somebody thinks we're pulling his strings, they're wrong."

Besides, a second intelligence official said, Haqqani "is not fighting us." He said the Pakistani military was more concerned with operations against the Pakistani Taliban.

Muhammad Amir Rana, director of the Pak Institute for Peace Studies in Islamabad, said there may be limited army operations in North Waziristan aimed at killing those Pakistani Taliban fighters who have fled there over the past year. But he said a full-scale offensive is unlikely because the status quo works for Pakistan.

"Pakistan has an agreement with these groups. Right now, they are not playing a role in terrorism in Pakistan," Rana said. "If Pakistan tries to tackle them under pressure from Washington, it will be creating another monster."

Officials and analysts also say that launching an offensive right now would undermine any hope of bringing Taliban groups in North Waziristan to the bargaining table under a reconciliation process initiated by Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

"They could be Pakistan's ally in the future in Afghanistan," Rana said. "So why go after them?"

"Ultimately, we will have to go in," said Abbas, referring to North Waziristan. But for now, he said, "it's our policy to be ambivalent."

Special correspondent Haq Nawaz Khan contributed to this report.

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