By David Morgan
WASHINGTON, Feb 29 (Reuters) - Pakistan’s military appears to be preparing for a new tribal-area offensive against the Taliban leader blamed for the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, U.S. officials and experts say.
Baitullah Mehsud, a South Waziristan militant with al Qaeda connections, has been seen as a growing threat on both sides of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border since December when he became leader of the umbrella group, Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, or Taliban Movement of Pakistan, U.S. officials say.
They expect military action to curb Mehsud’s rising influence in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, or FATA, possibly in the coming weeks as Pakistan’s newly elected civilian leaders try to form a coalition government.
"Baitullah has gone and got himself so visible. He wants to kind of consolidate all of the FATA underneath his control, and because he’s sticking out so far, the Pakistanis are going to hammer him down," said one U.S. defense official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Pakistan officials, who along with U.S. intelligence have accused Mehsud of ordering Bhutto’s Dec. 27 murder, believe him responsible for a wave of other suicide attacks across the country since July.
A top NATO commander in Afghanistan also said this week that Mehsud’s organization was helping Taliban insurgents and other militants in the eastern provinces of Afghanistan.
A Pakistani official in Washington said Islamabad had continuous military operations in the tribal area where 100,000 regular army and paramilitary forces have been deployed. But he declined to comment on plans for any specific offensive.
‘PUSH BACK HIS NETWORK’
It was not clear whether Pakistan would attempt to capture or kill Mehsud, U.S. experts said. But the military is constrained from launching an all-out offensive that could risk a backlash from tribes in the region.
"The Pakistani national security establishment is looking more to push back his network, not necessarily capture-kill him," said a U.S. analyst familiar with the Pakistan army’s preparations who spoke on condition of anonymity.
"They want to decrease his willingness to stand up publicly to the Pakistanis, essentially to marginalize him as a player," he said.
Some U.S. experts view Mehsud as a skilled and wily warrior who has alternately sought peace and dealt humiliating blows to the military. A peace deal he signed in 2005 proved short-term and his resurgent threat has added to misgivings about a government strategy of alternating pressure and appeasement.
But western military officials say Mehsud has been credited with more influence than he deserves. According to the U.S. defense official, his main ambition appears to be restricted to consolidating power within his tribe in the FATA.
U.S. officials view the Pakistan tribal region as a growing threat because the area provides a safe haven to al Qaeda, which is believed to be deepening its ties to the Taliban and other militant groups including Mehsud’s. Top defense officials have publicly offered Pakistan U.S. help against militants.
The Pakistani army last conducted an operation against Mehsud in early January. But the action ended after a few days amid talk of an unofficial truce, possibly because of deteriorating weather and outbreaks of militant activity elsewhere, according to a Western military official in Islamabad.
But the official, familiar with the counter-insurgency campaign, was encouraged that the army had taken the initiative. The stand-off appeared to be aimed at bottling up Mehsud and making people in the area resent the hardship he had brought to the rest of the Mehsud tribe, he said.
"I can’t point to anything in the past that equates to that," the official said, adding that General Ashfaq Kayani appeared to have brought greater focus to operations since taking over as army chief in November from President Pervez Musharraf. (Additional reporting by Simon Cameron Moore in Islamabad, editing by David Storey)