* Pakistan launches long-expected military operation
* Concerns that militants are slipping away across border
* Pakistan under U.S. pressure to crush militant hideouts
(Adds comments from U.S. analysts, official)
By Mehreen Zahra-Malik and Maria Golovnina
ISLAMABAD, June 17 After months of dithering,
Pakistan's army has launched an offensive against Taliban
insurgents near the border with Afghanistan but the tough
terrain, a potentially hostile local population, and risk of
revenge attacks in heartland cities could be more difficult to
conquer than the militants.
Pakistan announced on Sunday it was sending ground forces,
artillery and helicopter gunships to the remote, mountainous
tribal region of North Waziristan in a long-awaited military
operation designed to eliminate the al Qaeda-linked insurgents.
Islamabad has been under intense U.S. pressure for years to
crush sanctuaries for militants in the region and Pakistan's
move will be greeted with resolute approval in Washington - but
the challenges facing its army on the ground mean it should be
ready for a long haul.
No single outside force has ever succeeded in subduing the
volatile ethnic Pashtun region straddling Pakistan's western
frontier with Afghanistan, its deeply tribal population fiercely
independent and opposed to any invading army.
The biggest setback may be far from the battlefields of
North Waziristan as the country braces for a wave of Taliban
revenge attacks around Pakistan including in Punjab, Prime
Minister Nawaz Sharif's political power base.
"The biggest challenge of this operation is that our success
in the tribal areas could quickly turn into losses in the plains
of Punjab," a senior military official close to the operation
"Because there will be blowback and the public will get
scared and Taliban sympathisers will come out and say 'we told
you so'. And that's where we could lose this battle."
"That is Nawaz Sharif's biggest challenge," he added: "To
convince the public that it's better to bleed once than to die
Pakistan, a Muslim nation of 180 million, has tacitly
supported several Islamic militant groups in the past,
especially those opposed to the current government in
Afghanistan and those fighting India's rule in disputed Kashmir.
But the Pakistani Taliban, a loose alliance of radical
groups, is fighting to overthrow the Islamabad government and
impose a strict form of Islamic law on Pakistan.
The government was attempting to hold talks with moderate
Taliban leaders but those broke down after a brazen
command-style attack on Karachi airport this month in which a
group of highly trained fighters tried to run over the facility
and hijack a passenger plane.
In response, Pakistan has doubled its ground forces in North
Waziristan to about 80,000 troops, military sources said, in
preparation for a major ground operation against insurgent
GROUND OFFENSIVE SOON
So far the army has resorted only to air strikes, sending
F-16 and Mirage fighter jets to pound suspected militant
hideouts up in the mountains in a strategy to disorient the
Taliban and sow panic among their ranks.
According to a military official close to the operation, the
ground offensive will start in the next week when land forces
will try to comb through North Waziristan's valleys and take
over villages and buildings.
Air raids have continued daily since Sunday, killing
hundreds of fighters and no civilians, according to Pakistani
military sources. The official account is impossible to verify
as journalists are not allowed to work freely in the region.
The success of any operation of this scale is impossible
without the involvement of the United States, whose forces in
neighbouring Afghanistan have crucial intelligence on the
location of militant bases and training camps around the region.
Pentagon officials are vague about any U.S. role in helping
Pakistan, noting that it is a Pakistani-led and -executed
Rear Admiral John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, said
the United States hoped the offensive was a success, noting it
was clear "Pakistan and the United States and Afghanistan have a
shared threat and a shared challenge to deal with."
Pakistan fears the militants may slip over the border into
Afghanistan once the offensive starts and indeed some senior
leaders may already have. Pakistan says it has asked
Afghanistan's army to help seal off the border from its side.
Kirby declined to discuss specifics of cooperation but said
Marine Corps General Joe Dunford, the commander of U.S. and
international forces in Afghanistan, had constant communications
with his Pakistani counterparts.
With most U.S. troops leaving Afghanistan this year, it is
unclear how much capacity and willingness Washington would have
to get involved in another conflict far away from its shores.
U.S. analysts said they doubted the U.S. military was
providing much overt assistance to Pakistan for the operations.
Stephen Cohen, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution
think tank, said Pakistan had "more than enough capability" to
carry out the offensive on its own, and Shujah Nawaz, of the
Atlantic Council, said the United States did not have enough
troops to seal the Afghan side of the border.
"I know there's great relief here that the Pakistanis are
addressing the Pakistan Taliban problem," Cohen said. "They
finally realize that this is an urgent problem."
Once the ground operation gets under way, analysts also
expect the notorious lack of coordination among Pakistan's
myriad of security and intelligence agencies to hamper efforts
to tackle the insurgency head-on.
"The remote and rugged terrain is a big problem but the
biggest challenge is away from the tribal areas," said a close
aide to the prime minister. "It's a question of intelligence
coordination throughout the country.
The Taliban are deeply entrenched in Waziristan's
complicated patchwork of tribal alliances, blending into the
local population and making it hard to distinguish them from
"The biggest challenge will be intelligence, how to get
precise intelligence and then go after them," said Imtiaz Gul, a
security analyst. "They are dealing with a mobile enemy. It pops
up here and there, and wherever you apply pressure they move to
U.S. analysts said one thing the United States might be able
to do is carry out drone strikes against targets in North
Waziristan as it has in the past, but with closer coordination
with Pakistani intelligence.
"With Pakistani intelligence I think that these drone
strikes could be presumably much more effective than when we
were doing them unilaterally," said Michael Kugelman, an
associate at the Wilson Center think tank.
Pakistan's strategy, for now, is to encircle North
Waziristan with troops and use helicopters and fighter jets to
attack sanctuaries from the air.
Before it launches a ground offensive, the army has given
the region's estimated two million population several days to
evacuate the area, with a large number of refugees massing in a
tent camp across the border in Afghanistan's Khost province - a
potential humanitarian crisis in the making.
Those who have stayed behind are unlikely to give troops a
warm welcome, analysts say, particularly in areas with
traditionally strong Taliban influence.
Even if the army's advance through the region is smooth, it
is unclear what would happen afterwards and how Pakistan intends
to rebuild the ruined villages to bring the refugees back.
A similar operation in South Waziristan in 2009, which was
unpopular among Pakistanis, displaced half a million people as
homes, schools and hospitals were turned into hideouts by
militants and meagre civic amenities were destroyed. The region
remains largely undeveloped.
"The most difficult task is not the operation, they can
achieve that and clear the area," said Muhammad Amir Rana,
director of the think tank Pak Institute for Peace Studies.
"It is in the post-operation period when many different
scenarios emerge. (Taliban) support networks, their affiliates
are still active in many different parts of the country."
So far air strikes have been targeting mainly Uzbek
strongholds in North Waziristan. Allied with the Pakistani
Taliban, they have no tribal affiliations in Pakistan and are
seen mainly as al Qaeda's foot soldiers with little clout.
Pakistan has always distinguished between the good and the
bad Taliban, identifying some as moderates with whom the state
can negotiate but the breakdown of talks has changed the
"It's difficult to distinguish between the good and the bad
Taliban. It wouldn't be an ideal scenario if the good and the
bad Taliban joined forces and attacked the army together," said
Saifullah Mahsud, head of the FATA Research Centre think tank.
"That would make things very difficult for them."
(Writing by Maria Golovnina; Editing by Richard Chang)