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

Map shows location of North and South Waziristan in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan.
By Karen DeYoung and Griff Witte
Wednesday, April 14, 2010

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.

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