Pak to launch military offensive in North Waziristan

Islamabad: Pakistan has decided to launch a "targeted military offensive" in the North Waziristan tribal region bordering Afghanistan, where the army has not taken any action so far to flush out Taliban and al-Qaeda elements despite tremendous pressure from the US.

The understanding for launching the offensive was developed during US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Admiral Mike Mullen`s visit to Islamabad last week for talks with Pakistan`s top civil and military leaders, The News daily reported today.

The Pakistani civil and military leadership gave the "undertaking to operate against the militants in North Waziristan in barter for the clean chit Clinton had granted to them in Osama bin Laden`s case", the newspaper quoted its sources as saying.

The strategy for the action in North Waziristan Agency was worked out long ago and the Pakistan Air Force will initially be put into operation, the newspaper quoted its sources as saying.

The air force will soften targets pointed out by intelligence agencies and this will be followed by ground action. The PAF has put in place precautionary measures to thwart retaliatory action from militants in North Waziristan.

The PAF has started reducing "unnecessary non-operational staff" at bases considered possible targets of retaliatory attacks by militants, the report said.

A joint operation with the US has "been discussed but no decision has yet been made… since it involves numerous sensitivities", the report said.

In case Pakistan and the US agree to go in for a joint action, it will be the first time that "foreign boots will get a chance to be on Pakistan`s soil with the consent of the host country", the report contended.

Such a move will be made after "a careful assessment of the situation and deliberations by the armed forces` command in Pakistan", the report said.

A decision regarding the mode of action and its scale has been left to the armed forces.

The sources said over 30,000 troops are already present in North Waziristan and more troops could redeploy to the area.

The target of any operation in the region will be the "most violent factions" of the Pakistani Taliban.

Their leader, Hakimullah Mehsud, is "believed to be increasingly isolated after executing a prominent former Pakistani official over the objections of senior militant leaders", the report said.

Though Mehsud has been linked to attacks in the tribal areas and Afghanistan, his focus appears to be on plotting carnage within Pakistan and this makes him a "prime target for the army", the report added.

Pakistan`s civil and military leadership has so far rejected US pressure to launch a military operation in North Waziristan, saying it will take action in the volatile tribal region at a time of its choosing.

Pakistani military commanders have said that the 140,000 troops deployed in the country`s northwest are too stretched fighting militants who pose a domestic threat.

They have also said that the army will first consolidate its position in other parts of the tribal belt, where it has carried out military actions and achieved successes against militants.

Fissures among the Taliban militants were laid bare in February, when Hakimullah Mehsud released a video showing the killing of former Inter-Services Intelligence agency officer Sultan Amir Tarar alias Colonel Imam.

Mehsud`s group held Imam for 10 months before executing him. The killing confounded Pakistani military officials.

The divisions that Imam`s death revealed among militant groups "could provide an opportunity for the army to hit hard at insurgents in the North Waziristan town of Mir Ali, where Mehsud set up bases after fleeing last year`s military assault on his headquarters in neighbouring South Waziristan", The News reported.

Mir Ali is about 32 km from Miramshah, the town where the leaders of the Haqqani network are based.

Ilyas Kashmiri, an al Qaeda-linked commander accused of involvement in the Mumbai attacks, is also believed to be in Mir Ali.

In the past few months, US drones have focussed on targets in North Waziristan despite protests by army chief Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani.

Pakistan`s civil and military leadership believes surgical strikes in North Waziristan will "possibly minimise the drone attacks that fuel anti-American sentiments across the country", the report said.