ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Having evicted Islamist militants from large tracts of Swat valley including the main town of Mingora, the question on many Pakistanis’ lips is: Where will the army strike next?
After a series of clashes in the past week, eyes have begun turning to South Waziristan, a tribal land bordering Afghanistan and the stronghold of Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud.
The Swat offensive has to be finished first, and the government will want to see people displaced by the conflict, estimated at more than 2 million, begin to go home in large numbers before opening up another front.
The United States and other Western allies hope for rapid follow through by Pakistan in the fight against the Taliban and other groups linked to al Qaeda.
But, both the one-year-old civilian government and the army are sensitive to public opinion, and having won backing for the Swat campaign, won’t want to squander it by creating another humanitarian crisis.
Officials privately doubt whether Defense Secretary Syed Athar Ali’s comment on Sunday that the Swat offensive would be over in days was correct.
Pacifying the whole valley will take longer, and the army will have to provide security until it is sure that the police can combat any militant remnants.
Military statements say several key militant bases have been cleared, and hardcore fighters are being squeezed northwards.
They are trying to escape through the mountains to Kalam valley. The army has positioned troops in Kalam, so expect some clashes there. Luckily it is a less populated region, and it shouldn’t add significantly to the burden of displaced people.
At the same time, the military is still trying to consolidate its victory in Bajaur, the tribal region bordering eastern Afghanistan where the Taliban were defeated after a seven-month campaign in March, and keep a lid on militants in Khyber, where truck convoys serving U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan have periodically come under attack.
President Asif Ali Zardari suggested to a British newspaper late last month that South Waziristan would be next, sparking a mini-exodus from both there and neighboring North Waziristan.
Al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden passed through Waziristan after fleeing Afghanistan in late 2001 before his trail went cold, and it has been a hotbed of Taliban and al Qaeda activity.
Despite aides saying Zardari was quoted out of context, speculation has hardened that something is afoot in a region that has seen several inconclusive offensives going back to 2004.
In the past week, the army unleashed helicopter gunships on militant targets, a military convoy was ambushed, and Baitullah Mehsud lost 15 men in an attack on a frontline picket that killed at least 3 soldiers, wounded six and left four missing.
The army conducted a limited operation in early 2008 in South Waziristan to drive Mehsud deeper into the mountain fastness of his tribal lands.
Lying furthest from Peshawar, the capital of North West Frontier Province, the Waziristans are the poorest of Pakistan’s seven semi-autonomous Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and home to its most recalcitrant tribes.
They don’t like the Pakistan army being in their lands. The offensive 18 months ago resulted in around 200,000 people being lodged in camps for several months, before the army realized it was pointless holding empty territory and allowed them back.
The army controls roads all around the Mehsud lands, and the self-styled emir of 13 Pakistani Taliban factions has been bottled up in his redoubt.
Though regularly targeted by missiles from unmanned U.S. drone aircraft hunting Mehsud’s al Qaeda allies, Waziristan, both North and South, has been comparatively quiet since then.
Spokesmen for Mehsud often claim responsibility for militant strikes elsewhere in Pakistan, and eliminating the semi-literate former truck driver would resonate at home and abroad.
Mehsud’s notoriety soared after he was blamed for the assassination of Zardari’s wife, former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, in December, 2007. The Taliban chief denied he did it.
Editing by Sugita Katyal