Pakistan Faces Domestic, International Pressure Over Militants
By Gary Thomas
30 June 2008
The Pakistani army operation against pro-Taliban militant groups has raised questions about the government's motives and intentions. Does Pakistan's government plan to take on other militant groups, or is this a narrowly focused offensive? As VOA correspondent Gary Thomas reports, analysts also question why the new government suddenly scuttled its proposed peace deals with militant groups.
Since it came to power in February, the elected government made it clear that it preferred talking with some of the pro-Taliban militant groups, rather than fighting all of them. But the government dispatched paramilitary forces to root out militant strongholds near Peshawar, the capital of Pakistan's North West Frontier Province.
The move came after pro-Taliban groups became increasingly bolder, setting up parallel local administrations in some areas of the Khyber agency, an area that acts as the main land route into Afghanistan and its capital, Kabul.
Pro-Taliban groups, along with al-Qaida, have been reconstituting themselves in Pakistan's tribal areas, where they have found a safe haven from which to attack U.S. and NATO troops across the border in Afghanistan.
As U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates noted last week, this has dismayed the United States, which has been trying to get Pakistan to do more to battle Islamic militancy.
"Clearly the ability of the Taliban and other insurgents to cross that border, and not being under any pressure from the Pakistani side of the border is clearly a concern. I think that needs to be addressed with the Pakistani government," he said.
Ken Katzman, a South Asia and Middle East analyst at the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, says U.S. pressure forced Pakistan to act.
"The militants have been making inroads into Peshawar for many months, if not longer, and I do not think anything happened necessarily in Peshawar happened that was new this week to prompt this. But what was new the past couple of weeks was the stepped-up U.S. pressure. I think Pakistan knows that unless they start acting the U.S. might start acting more unilaterally, and has indeed started acting somewhat more unilaterally," he said.
Katzman cited a report in the New York Times newspaper that says U.S. officials drafted a secret plan to launch covert missions against militants in the mountains of Pakistan, but the plan languishes because of policy differences. Katzman says the story was leaked as part of the U.S. campaign to increase pressure on Islamabad.
But U.S. Army War College National Security Studies Professor Larry Goodson disagrees that American pressure forced Pakistan's hand.
"It has always seemed to me that the external pressure has never amounted to much in the Pakistani equation, and that that has gotten even less over the years because of the deeper or deepened, shall we say, perception among Pakistanis that the American relationship is very much a fair weather relationship," he said.
Goodson says a threat to the Khyber Agency and Peshawar was too much for Pakistan to abide. He adds it is easier to mount an offensive against militants in the Khyber Agency than in more remote tribal sanctuaries.
"But I think that the primary concern is, Peshawar is critical. They cannot allow these guys to have a real toehold in that area. And they can operate in the Khyber in ways that they cannot in Waziristan and so forth. So they sort of dress it up in this sort of cleavage between the really bad and the less bad [militants], that that is the strategy. But in reality they are picking the low-hanging fruit from an operational point of view," he said.
It is not known if the offensive marks a broader strategic shift by the government or is only a limited operation. But analysts point out that Pakistani Taliban commander Baitullah Mehsud, who Islamabad has accused of organizing the assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, announced he is halting peace talks with the government.
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