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Pakistan Army's challenge: holding onto gains against militants

As the government prepares for a major operation in South Waziristan, it's eyeing lessons learned from previous campaigns that were cut short in the face of weak public support.

By Issam AhmedCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / June 27, 2009

Islamabad, Pakistan

As the Pakistani military zeros in on Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud in South Waziristan, it is trying to break a pattern in which initially successful operations have lost ground, allowing militants to regain their strength.

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Previous operations to flush out militancy have faltered for a number of factors. This time, say analysts, the military is better prepared in counterinsurgency tactics, as seen in its recent battle in the Swat Valley. Most crucially, the government's efforts have popular support, something that's often been lacking in previous operations.

"A lot has changed both globally and domestically," says Badar Alam, a senior editor at Herald, a leading political magazine. "All these factors have ganged up to give the operation the force that it has."

Unsustained operations

Brig. Mahmood Shah (ret.), a security analyst and the former senior bureaucrat of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, says that governments in the past have not been willing to fully tackle militants because of public skepticism.

Brigadier Shah cites a peace deal struck in the aftermath of the first major-scale operation in February 2005.

"We had Baitullah on the ropes," he says, adding that Mr. Mehsud, at the time, was forced to seek refuge in North Waziristan. But fighting stopped, and Mehsud negotiated a fresh peace deal – which, because it was negotiated with militants, as opposed to the entire tribe, quickly fell apart.

Former military ruler Gen. Pervez Musharraf was unpopular for conducting these operations and was "constantly struggling to legitimize his rule," adds Shah.

The military next attempted to venture into the area in February 2008, when 350 Pakistani troops were forced to abandon the Ladha Fort in the militant stronghold of Makeen, in South Waziristan. That operation was also called off.

But now, a growing familiarity with the territory, which the Army had never entered prior to 2002, as well as experience gained from previous operational errors, should help, says Gen. Athar Abbas, an Army spokesperson.

And, because of the Army's gains against the Taliban in the recent offensive in Swat Valley, Mehsud's militias are now increasingly hemmed in. Recent media reports have suggested that Mehsud's men are falling back to their home turf.

"Swat, Bajaur, and Mohmand are under attack. He knows he is going to be the next target – it's only a question of when," says Ismail Khan, Peshawar bureau chief of Dawn, a leading English daily.