ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Most of the Taliban fighters and all of their leaders apparently have escaped Pakistan's widely publicized six-week-old offensive in South Waziristan, forcing the army to begin pounding other parts of the country's lawless tribal area.
Since Sunday, Pakistan has been launching aerial attacks on suspected militant hideouts in Orakzai, another part of the tribal area, and on Tuesday it extended operations to Khyber, the tribal territory closest to Peshawar, the provincial capital.
Though the army has extended its reach and now controls much of the former Taliban fiefdom in South Waziristan, the threat that was supposed to be extinguished seems likely to persist.
The Pakistani military also is likely to remain preoccupied with chasing the domestic threat rather than bowing to U.S. pressure to take on the Afghan Taliban groups, who've used North Waziristan as a base for attacking the U.S. and allied troops and the U.S.-backed government in Afghanistan.
In Khyber, which houses the main supply route for NATO troops in Afghanistan, government forces killed 18 militants and seized their arms dumps, according to the Frontier Corp paramilitary force. In Orakzai, thought by many to be the most likely hiding place now of Pakistani Taliban chief Hakimullah Mehsud, government forces have killed at least 20 extremists since Sunday.
"The Waziristan operation is real, I'm sure of that, but where are the bad guys?" asked one Western security official visiting Pakistan, who couldn't be identified because he wasn't authorized to speak to the media.
The Pakistani operation, carried out by about 30,000 troops, targeted the part of South Waziristan occupied by the Mehsud tribe and was meant to eliminate the bulk of Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan, the group behind most of the terrorist attacks inside the country, along with their Arab and Central Asian partners who are closely associated with al Qaida.
Many, however, think that the government blundered by announcing the operation four months in advance, giving plenty of time to the extremists to plan a retreat.
With more than half the targeted territory now conquered, the Pakistani army has claimed it killed fewer than 600 militants, at a cost of 70 soldiers. Before the operation began, the army had estimated enemy strength at 10,000 to 15,000 fighters, leaving the whereabouts of the rest a mystery. They're considered unlikely to be in North Waziristan, as it houses the rival Wazir tribe and a competing faction of Taliban.
There's no word on the location of Hakimullah Mehsud, while his spokesman, Azam Tariq, is able to continue issuing propaganda.
"We have not been defeated. We have voluntarily withdrawn into the mountains under a strategy that will trap the Pakistan army in the area," Azam Tariq told a news conference recently at a secret location.
The army took nearly a week to subdue Hakimullah's birthplace of Kotkai in South Waziristan, one of its first major objectives, and it met strong resistance in the towns of Kaniguram and Sararogha.
Then, the victories got easier. As the army pressed forward to the extremist "capital" of Makeen, which is now in army hands, the insurgents vacated areas — though the army points out that 17 soldiers died taking Makeen.
"We still we receive RPG (rocket propelled grenade) fire from areas sometimes, but the troops quickly respond to kill them or force them to flee. There's no direct fighting here right now," a mid-ranking Pakistan military official who had seen the operation in South Waziristan. "The troops are busy removing IEDs (improvised explosive devices), searching for bunkers and arms caches; many have been removed. We are consolidating our positions now in the hilly areas to block militants from using them for launching attacks."
The official couldn't be identified by name because he wasn't authorized to speak to the media.
Not only do the Taliban appear to have largely escaped but their ability to stage terrorist attacks inside Pakistan also is undiminished, as evidenced by a savage onslaught against Peshawar.
However, Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, the chief army spokesman, insisted that the army achieved a "huge change," by dividing the TTP into scattered groups, and taking over their training camps and other infrastructure. He said many could still be hiding in remote forests and mountains inside South Waziristan.
"Once we consolidate our position, it will radiate effects all around," Abbas said. "It is not the numbers of those who escaped that matters. I think we have broken the TTP."
Analysts think that the Taliban will stage a comeback, in tactics similar to their Afghan allies' withdrawal from Helmand in Afghanistan this summer, in the face of an American offensive, only to return later with hit-and-run tactics that have inflicted the worst monthly casualties of the war on U.S. forces.
"The strategy that the army has adopted (in South Waziristan) is very conventional and very predictable," said Javed Hussain, formerly a brigadier with the Pakistani special forces. "Three or four months from now, they (the Taliban) are going to bounce back. When the army is deployed to hold the area, the guerrillas will start their hit-and-run attacks against the army's lines of communication, and all over the tribal area."
(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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