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.

Doubts are mounting that the Pakistani military will launch a promised ground offensive into the Taliban heartland of South Waziristan. The prolonged delay is threatening Pakistan's already shaky credibility on battling Islamic militants in its territory.

The military says it's softening up the region with airstrikes, but analysts and even a top leader in the ruling coalition say that could be the end of the effort.

"These are mere mock operations in order to convince NATO as well as the United States of America that Pakistan is very serious against the extremists," says Lateef Afridi, a central committee member of the Awami National Party, a coalition partner of the government.

Instead, he says, Pakistani leaders are protecting the militants as proxy fighters in Afghanistan and a lure for Americans to "give them dollars."

'They've got their hands full'

Since signing on to the US "war on terror" in 2001, Pakistan has struggled to convince the world it has severed all ties with homegrown Islamic militants. Islamabad built up credibility with its recent operation in Swat – a gain now threatened by the failure to knock out Swat Taliban leaders as well as the delay on South Waziristan.

Washington dispatched regional envoy Richard Holbrooke to Islamabad this week in a bid, analysts say, to check up on military planning and progress. At a press conference Thursday, Mr. Holbrooke said he asked Pakistan to go after Baitullah Mehsud and Maulana Fazlullah, the Taliban leaders based in South Waziristan and Swat, respectively.

Yet he also publicly gave the Army the benefit of the doubt regarding the delay.

"I think they've got their hands full in Swat and Buner," said Holbrooke. "They've got to make sure when the refugees come back that they have security, so maybe they're delaying the offensive."

'Softening up' phase drags on

The idea of a South Waziristan offensive began in May. The military had just launched its ground invasion into Swat and Buner districts, routing Taliban forces and seemingly finding a groundswell of popular support. A buoyant President Asif Ali Zardari pledged that soon the offensive would expand to South Waziristan.

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.

"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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