Are the Taliban under pressure in Pakistan?

September 4, 2008

File photo of South WaziristanAre the Taliban and al Qaeda finally under serious pressure in their hideouts along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border?

Pakistani officials say U.S.-led helicopter-borne troops launched a ground assault on a Pakistani village near the Afghan border on Wednesday, killing 20 people.  The raid, in the South Waziristan tribal area, was the first known incursion into Pakistan by U.S.-led troops since the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.

The raid has been condemned by Pakistan as a violation of its sovereignty. But the timing is puzzling.

Under intense U.S. pressure, the Pakistani army had launched major offensives against Taliban and al Qaeda strongholds in Bajaur,  another border area, and in Swat in the North-West Frontier Province, although Pakistan has since called a ceasefire for Ramadan.  Details of the offensives were sketchy, but their scale was implied by the tens of thousands of refugees fleeing the fighting.  It began to look as though Pakistan was finally taking determined action to drive out the Taliban and al Qaeda.

According to French journalist Marie-France Calle,  writing of a week spent travelling between Karachi, Peshawar and Islamabad, “everyone I have spoken to have told me that … the new people in charge have decided to go all the way in the tribal areas. They all said the only solution was to continue military operations until the Taliban and other militants were wiped out”.

So if Pakistan had begun its own campaign — as Washington has long asked it to do — why did the United States take the risk of enraging Islamabad by sending in ground troops? Did the U.S. troops believe they had a major target in their sights, a high-profile al Qaeda leader, and decide it was worth the risk? Or was the attack evidence of mounting pressure from both the United States and Pakistan on the Islamist militants  hiding out on the Pakistani-Afghan border? (The reported ground assault was followed up on Thursday by what Pakistan security officials said was a missile attack by a suspected U.S. drone in North Waziristan.)

It is too early to draw any real conclusions. However, let us just suppose the tide is turning against the Taliban and al Qaeda in Pakistan’s border areas and they are being forced out. Where will they go?

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