ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Pakistan could launch a full-scale military operation against Pakistani Taliban insurgents in the tribal areas near the Afghan border as early as this month, the defence minister said, warning insurgents against violating a ceasefire.
Dashing chances of a peace deal with the Pakistani Taliban, gunmen burst into a courtroom in Islamabad on Monday, killing 11 people in a broad daylight attack in the heart of the heavily guarded capital.
The Pakistani Taliban denied any role in the assault and a splinter group accepted responsibility.
Defence Minister Khawaja Asif told Reuters in an interview that the government would not hesitate to bomb militant hideouts or send forces into the tribal areas if the Taliban did not abide by the ceasefire announced last weekend.
“It will not take months now. We’ll have to march in the month of March,” Asif said, describing the government’s response if insurgent attacks continued.
“If there is a ceasefire, it has to be complete. Without that, we just can’t afford to have talks with the Taliban.”
Asif, long considered a pro-talks politician, is now one of a growing number of members of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s cabinet who believe it is time for tougher military action against Pakistani Taliban strongholds.
Sharif has been under pressure from the United States and hawks within the Pakistani army to send troops into North Waziristan, a tribal region along the Afghan border that is home to a complex web of al Qaeda-linked militant groups.
Since 2007, the military has mounted a number of offensives against militant strongholds in the northwest, largely clearing several areas, including their bastion of South Waziristan.
But North Waziristan has not been tackled, even though Pakistani Taliban members have taken refuge with allied Afghan factions based there that are not fighting the Pakistani state.
In February, Pakistan launched talks with the Taliban to find a negotiated settlement. But hopes of a peace deal have been crushed by a series of attacks and counter-attacks by both sides.
“We won’t just take this lying down,” the defence minister said. “If we are attacked, the state is attacked, civilians are attacked, military personal are attacked, we will retaliate. We will retaliate in kind.”
For a government long considered soft for pursuing peace talks, Asif said there were now very few takers for the argument that the Taliban are truly committed to dialogue.
“The Taliban have not even condemned this so-called splinter group four days after the attack. They are saying, ‘We have not violated a ceasefire, these are peripheral groups, they are not under our control,'” Asif said.
“But we cannot believe this.”
When asked about reports that talks may be re-launched, this time with Pakistan’s powerful military in the driving seat, he said: “The army’s input is very valuable. They are the people on the frontlines. They have to execute our decisions.”
The Sharif government’s insistence on pushing for talks with the Pakistani Taliban is driven to a large extent by the fear that the end of the U.S. combat mission in 2014 could energise a resilient insurgency straddling the shared frontier.
“If in the post-withdrawal period, the Afghan Taliban become stronger and carve out an area of influence in the south and east of Afghanistan, which is next to our border - that’s a scenario we should even avoid thinking of,” Asif said.
“Because then the Pakistani Taliban will have a powerhouse behind them, to support them. This option is there and everyone should try to avoid it.”
For sceptics, there is another scenario Pakistan wants to avoid at all costs: an unfriendly Afghanistan backed by India. Pakistan and India, nuclear-armed neighbours, have long suspected each other’s motives in Afghanistan.
As NATO’s presence fades, President Hamid Karzai has turned to India. The countries have signed a wide-ranging strategic partnership and India has pledged billions in development aid.
Pakistan has for years been suspicious of the help, going as far as to say Indian consulates are surveillance posts.
But Asif said Pakistan, and particularly its army which has for decades jealously guarded the right to dictate policy on Afghanistan, had evolved.
“We have evidence that India is meddling in Afghanistan, no doubt,” Asif said. “But I‘m a believer that if the conditions in the four walls of your own house are stable, nobody from outside will try to enter. We give India the opportunity.”
Editing by Maria Golovnina and Ron Popeski