Pakistan Plots Next Move Against Taliban Militants

The Taliban in Pakistan appear to be on the defensive. The challenge for Pakistan's government and military is how to consolidate some recent gains. The U.S. is urging Pakistan to press ahead, but the Pakistanis say that's not as easy as it sounds.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Now on the other side of the border the Taliban in Pakistan appeared to be on the defensive. The challenge for Pakistan's government and military is how to consolidate some recent gains, which according to Pakistanis may not be as easy as it sounds.

As NPR's Philip Reeves reports there are divisions over what tactics should be used against the militants.

PHILIP REEVES: The enemies of the Taliban in Pakistan haven't had much good news in the last few years. August's turning out to be a good month. The militant network has lost its leader, Baitullah Mehsud. Few now doubt Mehsud was killed in a U.S. missile strike on August 5th. Pakistani officials say this week they also caught two of Mehsud's top men. These days Pakistan's government ministers are striking a new more strident tone.

Mr. SHAH MAHMOOD QURESHI (Foreign Minister, Pakistan): We will go to every area to clear our territory of terrorists.

REEVES: That's Pakistan's foreign minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi. He's speaking during this week's visit to the capital, Islamabad, by the U.S. envoy, Richard Holbrooke.

Mr. QURESHI: We will approach every area in Pakistan - frontier regions or anywhere - where the root of the state is challenged.

REEVES: But will Pakistan really do that? If so, when? These questions lie at the core of a debate now going on in Pakistan.

Baitullah Mehsud ran Pakistan's Taliban network out of his headquarters in South Waziristan, in the mountains close to the Afghan border. Pakistani intelligence officials claim the militants are fighting amongst themselves over who should replace Mehsud. Some analysts say the Pakistani military should exploit this by launching a big military ground offensive into South Waziristan before Mehsud's thousands of fighters have time to reorganize.

Professor KARIM HUSSEIN(ph): They must do it immediately.

REEVES: Professor Karim Hussein is an expert on Pakistan's tribal belt and the militants who operate in it. He doesn't believe there's serious disarray among the Taliban following Mehsud's death. Hussein says the militant network tends to recover remarkably quickly from such setbacks.

Prof. HUSSEIN: We should not underestimate their intelligencia, their organization structure and ideological position. That has always proved to be very, very strong.

REEVES: That's why it's crucial for Pakistan's military to act quickly, Hussein says. Others say a military offensive would only unite the militants. They argue it's better to let them fight amongst themselves and then move in later.

The head of U.S. central command, General David Petraeus, visited Pakistan this week. America wants Pakistan to press on rapidly with its war on the militants. The Pakistanis say their military hasn't got the equipment it needs.

Shortly before Petraeus arrived, a Pakistani general, Ladim Ahmed(ph), declared it would take Pakistan months to prepare for a ground offensive in South Waziristan. Ahmed listed some of the equipment he says his army lacks, from night-vision goggled to helicopters.

Security analyst Saad Mohammad(ph), a retired Pakistani brigadier, says helicopters are a big factor.

Mr. SAAD MOHAMMAD (Security Analyst): The limited number of (unintelligible) that we have now, they're aging also because they've been in operation (unintelligible) for the past so many months. Plus, the lift capability it requires for helicopters for lifting troops. So, probably Waziristan will have to wait because of the (unintelligible), especially on the aviation assets.

REEVES: Some in Pakistan favor waiting. This summer, it only took Pakistan's army a few weeks to drive the Taliban out of most of Swat Valley in northwest Pakistan. Felik Fatami(ph), a leading Pakistani commentator and retired diplomat, believes the militants in south Waziristan are a different proposition.

Mr. FELIK FATAMI (Commentator, Retired Diplomat): They are much better trained there, they have more foreign fighters with them there, they have far better arms and weapons with them, and their defenses are more difficult to identify and destroy.

REEVES: Fatami thinks a Pakistani military offensive alone would be a mistake. He wants to see a combination of economic and political initiatives and covert operations.

Mr. FATAMI: I think this is a very good opportunity for the intelligence agencies of Pakistan to further the in-fighting amongst the Taliban so that if a few more could be eliminated, others need to give up and then the rest could scatter.

REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News, Islamabad.

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