MOHAMMAD GAT, Pakistan (Reuters) - One of Pakistan’s top military commanders on Wednesday ruled out an imminent offensive in North Waziristan, contradicting a newspaper report that Pakistan had agreed to assault the militant-infested region following pressure from the United States.
Speaking at a news conference in Mohmand Agency, one of the seven tribal areas on the Afghan border torn by militant violence, Lieutenant-General Asif Yasin Malik, commander of the 11th Corps based in Peshawar, said there was no change in his forces’ posture in the last weeks.
“I have no such plans as far as I am concerned,” he told reporters. “We will undertake operations when we want to do it, when it is militarily and otherwise in the national interest to undertake such operations.”
Pakistan’s The News newspaper reported on Monday that the military would launch an offensive against militant safe havens in North Waziristan.
Later on Monday a senior official with an international humanitarian agency said relief groups active in the northwest region were quietly told two weeks ago to prepare for up to 365,000 displaced people in advance of a military offensive.
But Pakistan military spokesman Major-General Athar Abbas said the armed forces were too stretched to go into North Waziristan, pointing to ongoing operations elsewhere.
“We are engaged in many agencies at the moment,” he said. “There are stabilization operations, there is a consolidation phase going on. There are active operations, like in Orakzai and Kurram and Mohmand agency,” he said.
The United States has long demanded that Pakistan attack the region to eliminate the Haqqani network, one of the deadliest Afghan militant factions fighting U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
Pakistan has been reluctant to do so, but it has come under more pressure and its performance in fighting militancy is under scrutiny again after it was discovered that Osama bin Laden had been living in the country.
The News quoted unidentified “highly placed sources” as saying Pakistan’s air force would soften up militant targets under the “targeted military offensive” before ground operations were launched.
The newspaper cited the sources as saying that a strategy for action in North Waziristan had been drawn up some time ago.
But an “understanding for carrying out the operation was developed” when U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and outgoing Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen visited Pakistan last week.
The military, long regarded as the most effective institution in a country with a history of corrupt, inept civilian governments, suffered a major blow to its image when U.S. special forces killed bin Laden deep inside Pakistan.
It was further humiliated on May 22-23 when a group of between four and six militants besieged a naval base for 16 hours and destroyed two P-3C Orion aircraft from the Unites States, crucial for Pakistan’s maritime surveillance capabilities.
Some analysts say any joint U.S.-Pakistani operation would subject the army to even more public criticism in a country where anti-U.S. feeling runs deep.
But the South Asian nation, dependent on billions of dollars in U.S. aid, is under more pressure than ever to show it is serious about tackling militancy.
Pakistan maintains about 140,000 troops in the northwest, including about 34,000 in North Waziristan.
“We have enough forces who are maintaining a reasonable environment which is stable, stable enough to undertake some developmental activity,” Malik said.
Additional reporting by Salman Rao and Zeeshan Haider; Writing by Chris Allbritton; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani