stan appears to be making preparatory moves for an attack on North Waziristan, a tribal region that has become a base for Afghan Taliban militants, amid pressure from the U.S.
Such an invasion, one of the U.S.'s core demands on Pakistan to help stamp out the Taliban insurgency in neighboring Afghanistan, could still be months away and limited in scope, if it happens at all. But signs are emerging that Pakistan is moving to prepare the field for some kind of incursion into a region that has become a melting pot of al Qaeda and Taliban militants, WSJ reported on Wednesday.
The U.S. has made an attack on Afghan Taliban factions in North Waziristan, especially the deadly Haqqani network, one of its chief goals in Pakistan. U.S. officials have applied greater pressure for action following the killing in May of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden by U.S. Navy SEALs in a raid on his compound in a Pakistani army garrison town only three hours by car from Islamabad.
A senior Pakistani army general last week told tribal leaders in Kurram, a region that borders North Waziristan, that forces were planning an attack on Taliban militants in their region, said tribal leaders who were present.
Such a move in Kurram would strengthen the army's presence on the edge of North Waziristan and help prepare for military action there.
"An action in North Waziristan is now required," said Mahmood Shah, a former army brigadier and defense analyst, who added that an operation in Kurram "could be one of the many preparatory moves the government has to carry out."
Residents of North Waziristan said the army also has been shutting checkpoints on roads across the mountainous region in recent weeks.
Such a move, local tribal leaders said, could signal the army is giving up control of roads in the area but consolidating its positions ahead of some kind of military action.
Gen. Athar Abbas, the army's chief spokesman, said he didn't have knowledge of the general's remarks on Kurram. He denied a report in a Pakistani newspaper that the army would soon launch an invasion of North Waziristan.
Pakistan's army has said for some time that it plans to attack North Waziristan but is stretched fighting other militants, mainly local fighters known as the Pakistan Taliban, in other parts of the tribal regions.
U.S. officials complain the Pakistani army, for the past three years, has focused on fighting Pakistan Taliban militants but continues to allow Afghan Taliban fighters to use its soil to launch attacks on U.S. troops across the border. Pakistan sees its links with these fighters as a hedge against the influence of India, its historical rival, in Afghanistan, U.S. officials said.
Others believe Pakistan is unlikely to take on the Haqqanis in a full-blown offensive. Muhammad Amir Rana, director of the Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies, an Islamabad-based think tank, said he believes an operation will happen but may target Pakistan Taliban at first, with limited strikes on Haqqani fighters later.
Some U.S. defense officials agree that Pakistan's overstretched military is in no position to take on the Haqqani network. The Haqqanis are believed to have 4,000 to 5,000 fighters and are primarily focused on fighting U.S. forces in eastern Afghanistan. There, they have proved a resilient and determined foe that has managed to sustain itself in the face of major efforts by U.S. regular and special forces to wear them down.
"These guys are world class," said a senior U.S. military officer. They engage in live-fire training and drill work that is comparable to that of a real army, and they "give us a lot of trouble on the Afghan side. It's not like we're just rolling right over them."The officer and others said one of their major concerns is a Pakistani offensive that fails, leaving the Haqqanis in an even stronger and more confident position. "It wouldn't be good for any of us if Pakistan tries and fails. No one wants to see Pakistan lose to these guys."
Pakistan also is facing stepped up attacks from the Pakistan Taliban following bin Laden's death. The group killed 69 army recruits in a double suicide bombing in the northwest of the country in mid-May. Last week, militants laid siege to a naval base in Karachi for 15 hours, killing 10 security personnel. Four militants died in the battle.
The bombing of militant positions in North Waziristan by U.S. Central Intelligence Agency-operated drones has forced Haqqani and Pakistan Taliban fighters to seek shelter in Kurram and Orakzai, another tribal region, military officials said. Pakistan previously declared victory against Pakistan Taliban militants in Orakzai, only to see them return to set up bases there.