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Battle Against Pakistan's Top Taliban Leaders Demands Specialized Military Tactics


The Pakistani government is hoping to capitalize on public support for its military offensive against Taliban militants in the northwest as it prepares to hunt down top Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud in South Waziristan. The rugged terrain of Waziristan demands very different tactics than those used against militants in the nearby Swat Valley.

Pakistan's military has achieved a measure of success against Taliban militants in the Swat Valley and taken control of its main town, Mingora. Now, the government says it is ready to go after Taliban leaders in Waziristan.

Different challenge


But Waziristan, just south of the valley in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, presents a very different challenge for the military.

Khalid Aziz is the former chief secretary of North West Frontier Province. Aziz, who currently heads the Regional Institute of Policy, Research and Training in Peshawar, describes the key differences between the Swat Valley and Waziristan.

"Waziristan is full of narrow valleys and barren mountains and it's a God-given country for any guerilla to fight in," Aziz said. "It becomes very difficult for normal military operations to take place. It's a country more like the mountainous parts of Afghanistan, where you have to undertake special operations, more use of the air (power) and, also, political handling. Because it's absolutely essential that the political side should be going -- which is to create counter-balance against Baitullah Mehsud."

Quick, sharp attacks

Retired Brigadier General Mehmood Shah served as a senior official in North West Frontier Province. He says Pakistani troops will have to launch quick, sharp and precise attacks in the area if they hope to prevail.

"Here you are facing a very hardened sort of fighters, who are die-hard," Shah said. "We are talking about Mehsud area and Baitullah Mehsud. He is in fact the center of everything for the whole Taliban movement in Pakistan and in the tribal area, including Swat. So you are going to have a very, very tough fight."

Mehsud network wreaks havoc

Baitullah Mehsud and his network of fighters and suicide bombers have wreaked havoc in Pakistan with a series of spectacular terrorist attacks across the country. The tribal areas he controls have served as a major safe haven for al-Qaida and other terrorist groups. Mehsud also is accused of orchestrating the assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.

Iqbal Khattak, a Peshawar-based journalist for the Daily Times newspaper, says for the army to be successful in South Waziristan, it will also be crucial for it to exploit tribal tensions that exist between the Mehsuds and Wazirs, the two major clans in the region.

"This is very important that you get the local population's support," Khattak said. "If that support comes to you, it is an extra bonus for your operational strategy. The Wazirs, I don't think they will be unhappy about any harm to the Mehsud people because they do not like that the Mehsud's are dominating the region."

New approach

The Pakistani army has fought in Waziristan several times in recent years with little to show for its efforts except peace deals that have quickly fallen apart and emboldened Mehsud and his fighters.

There are indications, however, that this time the Pakistani army and government are thinking differently about the current offensive. Analyst Khalid Aziz puts it this way: in the past, the army merely wanted to manage the problem of Baitullah Mehsud. Now, it wants to eliminate him.

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