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New bid to control Pakistan’s tribal belt

US, Pakistan step up efforts to address the militant haven tied to global terror.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 31, 2008

On duty: A U.S. soldier patrols southeastern Afghanistan, near Pakistan, where the US has offered to help fight militants.

Ahmad Masood/Reuters


Islamabad, Pakistan

After years of Pakistani indecision and US deference, the fight against Pakistan's terrorists, it appears, is now entering a new stage.

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Since 9/11, Pakistan has been slow to react to the increasing influence of militants in its remote tribal areas bordering Afghanistan, and the US has been loath to interfere, at least openly.

But this dynamic is shifting since terrorists killed former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and are striking at more corners of the country. For the first time, the US is putting public pressure on Pakistan by asking its leaders to let the US help fight terrorists within the country. Though Pakistan has rebuffed these advances, it has shown signs of taking the terrorist threat more seriously, responding quickly and forcefully to militants' increasingly bold attacks.

It is too early to call this a turning point – it is far from clear what effect these efforts will have. But they suggest a new resolve to address what has become the primary launching pad for terrorist attacks against Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the world.

"There is a realization within the military establishment that the government has lost its authority in the tribal areas," says Ismail Khan, a reporter for the English-language daily, Dawn, who covers the tribal belt.

In recent weeks, the US has offered military assistance to root out extremists in the largely ungoverned northwestern regions known as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) – with combat troops, CIA operations, or training.

President Pervez Musharraf has rejected the "invasion" of US troops. But the US is becoming increasingly concerned that activity within FATA is now the foremost threat to the stability in the region and even the world.

US officials have long worried that the Afghan Taliban were finding shelter in FATA. But the assassination of former Ms. Bhutto Dec. 27 – attributed to militants from FATA – was evidence that they could strike at the heart of Pakistan itself. Meanwhile, a string of terrorist plots, including the foiled plan to blow up passenger planes over the Atlantic, were traced to training camps and terrorist leaders in FATA.

As a result, there is a desire to increase coordination on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistan border. Tactically, "Pakistan and Afghanistan are not different," says Ijaz Khan, a political scientist at Peshawar University. "They should be seen together."

With plans to send 3,200 more troops to Afghanistan in the spring, the US is adding strength to the Afghan side. America's overtures to Pakistan represent an effort to "find ways to strengthen the Pakistan Army," says Anthony Cordesman, a security analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.