Why Pakistan will not mount new attacks on militants

BBC: With its announcement that it will launch no new offensives against the Taliban in 2010, Pakistan’s army appears to have opened a new innings in its favourite game with the West, says the BBC’s Syed Shoaib Hasan in Islamabad.

For the United States, the statement by the Pakistan army could not have come at a worse time.

Its main intelligence agency, the CIA, is still coming to terms with the death of seven personnel in a suicide attack in Afghanistan by an al-Qaeda “double agent”.

That attack, the worst suffered by the agency in four decades, was apparently planned and carried out by Taliban militants in Pakistan’s tribal areas.

Under pressure from the US, the Pakistan army launched an operation there in the main Taliban stronghold of South Waziristan in November 2009.

The army has since been able to secure that territory and push out the militants.

While some have been captured, most senior Taliban and al-Qaeda leaders have fled the region.

Intelligence officials say they have now taken refuge either in other nearby tribal regions or the neighbouring Balochistan province.

Mission impossible

Top US officials, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, have been calling for the military to go after the militants in these regions.

All this comes at a time when Pakistan’s government is already under a great deal of domestic criticism.

This is mainly due to increased missile strikes by the US targeting Taliban and al-Qaeda leaders in the tribal areas.

These have turned a sometimes ambivalent tribal population against the Pakistan military.

Analysts say the tribesmen see the strikes, which have claimed more lives of civilians than of militants, as contiguous with the military operation.

But US officials have continued to press for more action, painting doomsday scenarios for Pakistan.

The latest such warning comes from US Defence Secretary Robert Gates, who said in India that al-Qaeda was planning to carry out attacks to provoke war with Pakistan.

But the Pakistan military appears to have its own views on the subject, and their say is likely to count the most.

Their latest decision is likely to sends shivers through all Western capitals which have a stake in Afghanistan.

For Washington, in particular, the military’s U-turn will have far-reaching consequences.

Without Pakistani soldiers pressurising the Taliban in the tribal areas, it will be mission impossible for US forces in Afghanistan.

Diplomatic wrangling

Even with the additional 40,000 troops, it will not be possible to contain the insurgents.

With 2010 already being called a defining moment in the current conflict, the military has risked the all-out ire of the US with its decision.

But it appears to have thought out the move, given that it has gone public at a time when the US defence secretary is in Pakistan.

The military believes it has strong reasons not to move against the militants.

Many senior military officials have been angered by what they see are recent moves by the US and the UK to expand India’s involvement in Afghanistan.

They see this as being specifically targeted against Pakistani interests.

There is also the matter of promised US aid to Pakistan, most of which has been delayed due to diplomatic wrangling.

US officials say much of the aid has been held up because of delays in processing visas for officials attached to the projects.

But Pakistani intelligence officials say that many of these officials actually end up involved in activities “beyond their charter of duties”.

In common parlance, its means the officials are seen as spies.

Extremely unhappy

The military’s decision has also put the Pakistan government, with which it has been at odds of late, in an embarrassing position.

The military’s unhappiness at the government stems from what it sees as its pandering to US demands at every turn.

One example which intelligence officials quote at liberty, is the manner in which US special forces personnel are allowed to enter and move around Pakistan without being documented by immigration.

Officials say the military is extremely unhappy with the interior ministry on this count.

The shaky PPP-led government, for its part, is too busy rolling from one political crisis to another to really take this matter in hand.

On a more direct note, Pakistan’s military has also been demanding that the US give it more advanced helicopters and transfer its drone technology.

They say as the frontline state against the Taliban, such equipment is needed for greater success.

The US has, however, rejected these demands so far.