ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — The Pakistani government has called off a military assault on Islamic extremists based in its tribal border area with Afghanistan, an offensive which had appeared to bolster relations with Washington.
The operation was "suspended" at midnight Sunday local time to mark Ramadan, the month of fasting for Muslims. However, some detected political motives for ending the attack on Taliban and al Qaida fighters in Bajaur, part of the tribal territory. The fighting was not popular and led to a humanitarian crisis as some 300,000 locals fled.
"The militant network was in danger but this (ceasefire) will give them time to regroup," said Khadim Hussain, coordinator of Aryana Institute for Regional Research and Advocacy, an independent think-tank based in Peshawar. "I think this has got to do with the presidential election and getting support for (Asif) Zardari."
Zardari, head of the Pakistan People's Party, which heads the coalition government, is seeking the presidency, a post which will be filled by the vote of the members of Parliament on Sept. 6.
Islamist political parties have been highly critical of the Bajaur operation, seeing it as an American-influenced policy. The presidential election was triggered by the resignation of former Washington favorite Pervez Musharraf last month.
Fazlur Rehman, leader of Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam, a hard-line religious party, called Sunday for foreign troops to pull out of Afghanistan and for Pakistani soldiers to leave the tribal territory. Rehman Malik, the Interior Ministry chief went Sunday to see Qazi Hussain Ahmed, the leader of another religious party, Jamaat-e-Islami party, where he seemed to get a frosty reception.
"This (militancy) is all Pervez Musharraf's fault. He got us working for America," said Ahmed at a press conference afterwards.
Malik, speaking at the same press briefing, was on the defensive. "No one can say that we are taking American dictation. This is our war," he said.
Malik, who announced the ceasefire Saturday, said then that it was "purely" to allow the people of Bajaur, who had become internal refugees, to return home for Ramadan. He warned that, if the insurgents still attacked, the security forces would "retaliate ten times over".
Army spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas denied reports that the military was caught by surprise by the ceasefire announcement, though he made clear that it was not their decision.
"This has been decided by the government, seeing the difficulties of the people of the area and also the kind of space that has been gained at the end of this operation by the security forces. They (the extremists) are on the run," said Abbas.
The month-long offensive in Bajaur killed over 500 insurgents, according to the government. Attack helicopters and fighter jets also were used to bombard militant strongholds. Bajaur is considered a possible hiding place for top al Qaida leadership, including Osama bin Laden. But the epicenter of the Pakistani Taliban is further south, in Waziristan, where there has been no significant fighting since early February.
The Pakistan army is also fighting Taliban extremists in the valley of Swat, which lies next to the tribal area in the North West Frontier Province, where a ceasefire is also expected but not so far announced. The Taliban in Swat were dismissive of the prospect of a ceasefire.
"This is not a war, but jihad, and this is our faith that rewards for good deeds and that is multiplied during the holy month," said Muslim Khan, spokesman for the Taliban group in Swat.
In the past, the Army was criticized for an apparently half-hearted effort against the insurgents but the Bajaur and Swat operations appeared to involve fierce fighting.
"They (the Army) were trying to send out a clear message that they were serious this time around," said Farrukh Saleem, executive director of the Center for Research and Security Studies, an independent think-tank in Islamabad. "They have shown willingness, now the question is, do they have the ability to fight a counter-insurgency?"
In recent months, U.S. military and civilian officials have been highly skeptical of the commitment of Pakistani security and intelligence forces. The Bajaur operation is credited with helping to reassure Washington that Pakistan would take the fight to the extremists. It may have helped relations between the two countries' militaries, as a meeting last week between the Pakistani Army chief, Gen. Ashfar Kayani, and his U.S. counterpart Adm. Mike Mullen, was reportedly much warmer than other recent encounters.
Mullen said afterwards at a Pentagon news conference: "I'm encouraged that he's (Kayani's) taken action and I also think it's going to take some time."
Separately, there were a reported two U.S. missile strikes on targets in Pakistan's tribal area over the weekend. A hit on Saturday at a compound in South Waziristan killed four suspected militants, while at least another four others were believed to be slain by a strike Sunday in South Waziristan. U.S. attacks in the tribal area typically go after Arab fighters, linked to al Qaida, rather than Pakistan's homegrown militants.
Shah is McClatchy's special correspondent in Pakistan.