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Delayed offensive wears at Pakistan's antiterror credibility

US envoy Richard Holbrooke Thursday defended the military, which has been launching 'softening up' operations in South Waziristan for more than a month.

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But the days stretched into weeks, and the feeling that an attack is eminent has diminished. For its part, the Army says its airstrikes are a preliminary step before ground operations.

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"The time and the place of the offensive will be chosen by the military at the right time. The time hasn't come so far," says military spokesman Gen. Athar Abbas. "We are still seeking effects through siege and aerial targeting."

The military will wait until it senses it can achieve reasonable success with a ground offensive, says security analyst Gen. (ret.) Talat Masood.

That could mean it waits indefinitely, notes Khalid Aziz, chairman of the Regional Institute of Policy Research and Training in Peshawar.

"The numbers required would be too huge, the terrain wouldn't allow it, and it would sap anyone's strength. So it's going to be an aerial blockade with occasional special forces going in when there is a high-value target," says Mr. Aziz.

Added to that mix are the US-operated aerial drones that frequently target militant leaders operating in the tribal areas of Pakistan, including South Waziristan. According to reports, US counterterrorism officials believea drone strike in Pakistan this spring may have killed Osama bin Laden's son.

Giving militants time to escape?

Leaders like Mr. Afridi who represent Pashtuns living in Pakistan's tribal areas express strong doubts that Islamabad has turned completely against the Taliban.

They point out that only one top commander has been captured or killed so far in Swat, leaving the command and control structure intact. The weeks of delay in South Waziristan, they say, is another chance to let leaders slip away ahead of time.

"If the Army will be starting a ground offensive, against whom? Against the trees. The livestock," says Said Alam Mehsud, the leader of a new Pashtun nationalist group in Peshawar called the Pashtun Awareness Movement.

This strain of popular Pashtun thinking that Pakistan is playing a double game has its critics among some Pashtun leaders, including Rustam Shah Mohmand, a former ambassador to Afghanistan.

"They forget there is an American factor. They forget Pakistan is very closely coordinating with the Americans," says Mr. Mohmand. "The Army now means business and the proof of the pudding is in the eating."

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