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Pakistan faces limits as it widens war on Taliban

The Army is preparing for a new offensive in South Waziristan. A US drone strike Thursday killed at least nine in the area.

By Staff writer / June 18, 2009

Troops of Pakistan's army stand with heavy artillery in the troubled town of Upper Dir, Pakistan where Pakistani security forces are engaged with Taliban militants on Thursday. Government officials says suspected US missile strikes have pounded the hide-outs of a Taliban commander in northwestern Pakistan, killing at least eight people.

Dilawar Jan/AP

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New Delhi

The Pakistani military is preparing to open a new front in its fight against the Taliban, this time targeting South Waziristan, a tribal region and home base for Taliban factions fighting the Pakistani state.

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In recent days, it has launched softening-up operations, including air raids and shelling.

The military has the momentum of battlefield gains and popular support after pushing back one Taliban faction in northwestern Swat Valley and nearby areas.

But South Waziristan is no Swat.

The tougher terrain, more entrenched foe, and stretched forces lead experts to suspect that this operation will adopt modest aims, not a fight to the finish between Pakistan and the wider Taliban movement.

"We still aren't clear who the Pakistani military is fighting. Are they only fighting the Taliban who are actively fighting Pakistan, or will this go on to fight everybody who is with the Taliban and maybe fighting in Afghanistan?" says Moeed Yusuf, a security analyst at Boston University. "The public sentiment is surely with them at this point, but it's only with them for getting Pakistan back in order, not Afghanistan."

"Taliban" has become an umbrella term for numerous armed factions within both Pakistan and Afghanistan. Some of the Taliban within Pakistan have merely used the country as a base for attacks into Afghanistan.

A few Taliban leaders, including Maulana Fazlullah in Swat and Baitullah Mehsud in South Waziristan, have launched attacks within Pakistan – apparently triggering this military crackdown. Mr. Mehsud is a prime target for this operation, with Army chief Gen. Ashfaq Kayani saying this week that he "must be eliminated."

Broad goals vs. lower expectations

Interior Minister Rehman Malik stated sweeping goals in Islamabad on Monday: "We continue to fight until the last Taliban, militant, enemy of Pakistan is flushed out of Pakistan."