REUTERS - Pakistani forces backed by heavy artillery attacked Taliban insurgents on Monday as the army moved to wrest control of militant strongholds in a lawless region on the Afghan border.
The military launched the offensive in South Waziristan on Saturday after several months of preparation and following a string of brazen militant attacks — including one on the army headquarters.
The offensive could be the army’s toughest test since the militants turned on the state. The army launched brief offensives there before, the first in in 2004 when it suffered heavy casualties before striking a peace pact.
Following are some scenarios that may unfold:
The army has about 28,000 soldiers surrounding an estimated 10,000 hard-core Taliban, including about 1,000 tough Uzbek fighters and some Arab al Qaeda members. With its aircraft and superior firepower, the army will be hoping for quick success, although it has declined to say how long the offensive might last.
The army seldom ventures into much of the semi-autonomous region of arid mountains cut through by hidden ravines and will be taking on fighters who have had years to prepare defences. The army’s rear bases and supply lines are likely to come under attack by suicide bombers.
Pashtun tribes in the region have long been hostile to outsiders, and many people — particularly members of the Mehsud tribe — support the Taliban.
For the first time, the army, political parties and the public at large are broadly united in their determination to fight the militants, but that unity of purpose could evaporate if the offensive runs into trouble and the army and civilians suffer heavy casualties.
The Taliban are expected to strike back with urban bomb attacks or commando raids. While the general public and investors have largely become inured to such violence, more bloodshed on city streets will put pressure on the armed forces and government to finish off the Taliban as quickly as possible.
Another risk is that other militant factions — in South and North Waziristan and in Afghanistan — might come to the help of their comrades. Neither the army nor the government has confirmed speculation that deals have been struck to avert this, but the Daily Times reported on Monday that an Afghan Taliban faction in South Waziristan would stay neutral.
The Pakistani Taliban’s bastion does not border Afghanistan and the army says it has secured territory on the frontier to stop them from fleeing or Afghan comrades helping.
The Pakistani Taliban have close links with al Qaeda and anti-Indian militant groups based in Pakistan’s Punjab province. While the army has been playing down fears that the Punjabi groups pose a big threat, militants there have been linked to several big attacks in recent weeks and could strike again to divert attention from the South Waziristan offensive.
While the army says it has surrounded the militants, they could slip out of their South Waziristan lair and regroup, perhaps to the south in Baluchistan province which has been largely free of Islamist violence despite U.S. and Afghan assertions that Afghan Taliban leaders are there.
Another danger is that the militants might try to divert the army’s attention by engineering a confrontation with India. A militant attack on the Indian city of Mumbai in November ramped up tension between the two old rivals after India accused Pakistani security agents of supporting the militants who carried it out.
Despite Pakistani denials of responsibility, members of the Indian public clamoured for a strike on militants in Pakistan while Islamabad vowed to respond to any such action. In the event of another surge in tension with India, the Pakistani army would have to turn its attention to the border with India.
(For more Reuters coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan, see: here)