ISLAMABAD Pakistan's offensive against militants in Swat is taking longer than expected but that is unlikely to deflect the military from its plans nor, for now, undercut public support for the action.
The army went on the attack against Pakistani Taliban fighters in the Swat region, northwest of Islamabad, at the end of April after Taliban gains raised international worry about nuclear-armed Pakistan's stability.
The army has pushed the militants out of the former tourist valley's towns and it controls main lines of communication but clashes are flaring daily in some areas.
The fighting in the northwest has forced nearly 2 million people from their homes and while public backing for the offensive remains solid, there's a danger the suffering of the displaced could begin to sap support.
Meanwhile, the government and military have set their sights on Pakistani Taliban leader and al Qaeda ally Baitullah Mehsud in South Waziristan near the Afghan border. The military says Mehsud is responsible for 90 percent of militant attacks in the country.
While the military has not put a timeframe on the Swat offensive, there has been speculation the army would want to secure the valley before launching a push on Mehsud, and clashes in Swat could delay that.
"It has definitely taken a longer time but it's explainable in terms of the terrain, the mountains," said defense analyst Hasan Askari Rizvi.
"They have entrenched themselves more than people generally thought, that's why the military is having problems in completing the whole process," he said.
The failure to capture or kill leaders of the Taliban in Swat spelt trouble, another analyst said.
"Unless you eliminate the leadership, however much damage you do, the command structure will manage to grow back," said security analyst Ikram Sehgal. "As long as that leadership exists, low-intensity guerrilla warfare will keep going on."
DANGER IN CAMPS
But analysts said while Swat fighting might drag on, that would not deflect the military from going after Mehsud.
"I don't think there is a necessary relationship between the two in terms of getting done with one and then going to the next one," said Kamran Bokhari, Middle East director for global intelligence company Stratfor.
"They're not waiting to get done with Swat before focusing on South Waziristan, he said. "They know Swat is not over yet. Are they going to wait? It could take months. Would you want to allow Baitullah Mehsud the opportunity to do what he can?"
The military was setting up choke points to surround Mehsud's mountain stronghold and was working with ethnic Pashtun tribes in the area to lock in their support.
"That's going to determine when they're going to go in," Bokhari said.
For now, the fear that Taliban expansion spread through the country was ensuring public support for the offensive.
The political opposition, including the party led by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, which will be the main government challenger in the next election due by 2113, were supportive.
"His party has come to the conclusion that as long as these Taliban are not really taken care of, governance will be a hell of a problem," said Rizvi. "They're not going to create problems for the government on this issue."
But questions will arise before too long if Taliban violence persists and the displaced languish in misery, he said.
"It might become a political problem if Swat is not returned to a normal situation, maybe, by the end of August," Rizvi said.
"Then there will be real questions."
As well as the possible problem of the suffering of the displaced undermining wider government support, anger among the displaced can be exploited by the Taliban.
"It's not that public support for the offensive will go down but it could create a separate unrest that you will have to deal with. These people are susceptible to Taliban propaganda," said Bokhari.
Sehgal said pro-Taliban clerics were operating in some tent camps on the lowland where the displaced are being looked after.
"This is very dangerous. As soon as they dismantle the camps the better," he said.
(Editing by Sanjeev Miglani)