ISLAMABAD — U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta says Pakistan’s military will soon be ready to begin a long-awaited offensive in its North Waziristan border region, where the al-Qaida-affiliated Haqqani network is reportedly based. Military officials in Pakistan have nothing to say about Panetta's claim, and Pakistan's political leaders say it would be premature to speculate on whether an operation is being planned.
Pakistan has long resisted pressure to mobilize troops against the Haqqani network who are said to be entrenched in North Waziristan. The United States says the militants are involved in cross-border attacks on NATO forces to fuel the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan.
The proposed Waziristan operation was said to be high on the agenda when the chief of the Pakistani spy agency, Lieutenant-General Zaheerul Islam, visited Washington earlier this month for counterterrorism talks.
No details of those discussions were made public, but leaks to both Pakistani and U.S. media have led to speculation that the two sides are closer to an agreement on the issue. Military officials in Islamabad are dismissing the reports.
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta's revelation that Pakistan is readying itself for the long-awaited offensive in North Waziristan has again revived the controversy. He told The Associated Press that army chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani discussed the Pakistani plan in recent talks with the U.S. commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan General John Allen.
"General Kayani did indicate that they had developed plans to go into Waziristan," said Panetta. "Our understanding is that, hopefully, they're going to take that step in the near future. I can't tell you when, but the indication we have is that they are prepared to conduct that operation soon."
Panetta says the Pakistani Taliban, not the Haqqani network, might be the target of a government offensive in North Waziristan.
The political administrator of Pakistan's northwestern province bordering the tribal belt says it is too soon to say whether a military offensive in North Waziristan is in the making.
Khyber Pakhtunkhwa's Chief Minister Amir Haider Khan Hoti told reporters in Peshawar that “whenever a decision is taken to launch the operation, the nation will come to know about it.”
Tribal sources and local officials say they have seen no signs of an imminent military operation in North Waziristan.
Analysts say the situation on the ground is more complicated.
Maria Sultan, a defense analyst, and the director of the private South Asian Strategic Stability Institute in Islamabad, says the Haqqani network has a very strong presence in Afghanistan’s border regions adjacent to Pakistan’s North Waziristan agency.
“The area occupied by the Haqqani network, it is a cross-border area, so a military operation could only be successful from either side if both sides had agreed to it," she says. "Will Pakistan go ahead with it? Yes, we will go ahead with it, if there is collective decision making on it. And it will require a major military operation. So this means that all countries of NATO, America and Pakistan have to be on board if this operation is to succeed.”
Analyst Hassan Askari Rizvi, a former professor at Columbia University, says the fragile political situation in the border region may prevent Pakistan's military from opening a new anti-militancy front.
“It would be a major shift in Pakistan’s policy if they go and attack North Waziristan, because they have not been able to succeed in other tribal areas where they continue to fight," says Rizvi. "So if they add a new agency [tribal area] to their list, that might stretch their task and make it difficult for them to manage North Waziristan, which is the toughest of all agencies.”
Critics believe Pakistan’s historic ties to insurgent groups like the Haqqani network prevent it from targeting these militants, hoping they can be an ally in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of foreign forces.