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Is North Waziristan next?

By Imtiaz Gul

Foreign Policy Mar 04, 2010

A day after the Pakistani Army showed off the newly militant-free mountainous Bajaur to journalists, a regiment of tanks rumbled into Miram Shah, the administrative headquarters of North Waziristan. The movement of tanks triggered fears of a military campaign in this region, home to the Haqqani insurgent network.

The United States has long been pressing Pakistan to take conclusive action against the network, currently led by Sirajuddin Haqqani, the eldest son of the ailing Afghan jihad veteran Jalaluddin Haqqani. Most recently, a U.S. military intelligence official said he believes the Haqqanis were involved in the recent deadly attacks in Kabul.

Maj. Gen. Tariq Khan, commander of the paramilitary Frontier Corps, said that militants in Bajaur, where the Army had moved in the fall of 2008, were no longer able to cross over into Afghanistan to join the fight against U.S. and NATO forces and would find it more difficult to stage attacks inside Pakistan. "We think the Bajaur operations have now more or less ended... We will switch our posture to policing operations," Khan told reporters in Bajaur's Damadola area, a key Taliban and al-Qaeda base that the army had targeted in late January.

But several hundred kilometers from Bajaur in North Waziristan, there were no signs of letting up. With the deaths in February of several al-Qaeda linked leaders via CIA-operated drones including Qari Zafar, the Punjabi commander wanted in connection with the deadly 2006 bombing of the U.S. consulate in Karachi, and a son of Jalaluddin Haqqani, pressure seems to be mounting on the militants in North Waziristan. It is becoming increasingly clear that the United States and Pakistan are coordinating their actions in wild Waziristan more than ever. The successful drone strikes appear to be the result of this close army-to-army cooperation, whereby the Pakistanis may be providing ground intelligence and the CIA providing the missiles. The capture of Mullah Baradar, the Taliban's number two after Mullah Omar, also suggests more cooperation between Pakistan's powerful spy agency and the CIA.

Government officials in Waziristan, however, described the recent movement of tanks into Miram Shah as "readjustment of troops and hardware," and as more of a signal of Pakistani military power in the volatile region. It is important to keep the pressure up and convey to the militants that they cannot dictate to the state, said a government official in Miram Shah, requesting anonymity. Since the death of Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan chief Baitullah Mehsud last August, and his successor Hakimullah Mehsud in January, the Pakistani Army has been taking the fight to the militants in South Waziristan, Bajaur, Orakzai, and Khyber, forcing them to disperse.

The latest movements in North Waziristan have prompted speculation that five brigades of the Army and around the same number of paramilitary Frontier Corps troops might be gearing up for some mop-up and surgical operations in the area. While the new campaign, if there is one, would likely not be as large scale as last fall's operations in South Waziristan, it might assuage U.S. concerns about the Haqqani network and help win Pakistan a role in Afghan negotiations. Army chief of staff Gen. Ashfaq Kayani has already said, "There is...no need at this point to start a stream roller operation in North Waziristan."

(The author heads the independent Centre for Research and Security Studies, Islamabad.

Email: imtiaz@crss.pk