KARACHI, Pakistan — As the U.S. turns up the pressure on Pakistan to launch a new military offensive in the North Waziristan tribal area following the Times Square bombing attempt, analysts warn that a frontal assault could lead to a terrible terrorist backlash.
U.S. national security adviser Gen. James Jones and CIA chief Leon E. Panetta were due in Islamabad late Tuesday with an agenda that includes asking Pakistan to "do more" in the anti-terror fight, with an offensive in North Waziristan expected at the top to their list.
Faisal Shahzad, a naturalized American citizen of Pakistani origin who allegedly tried to set off a crude car bomb in Times Square on May 1, later said that he'd traveled to North Waziristan, where he claimed that he met Pakistani Taliban leaders and received explosives training, according to U.S. officials and the criminal complaint lodged in court in New York.
Analysts say an assault on Pakistan's last untouched redoubt of extremists may be unavoidable if Pakistan wants to eliminate extremist havens on its soil. However, such an assault could scatter militants across the country, and Pakistan is already reeling from a wave of terrorist violence that claimed at estimated 3,000 lives last year.
Another reminder of the militants' capabilities came Tuesday, with a remote-controlled bombing in Dera Ismail Khan, a town in the northwest, close to South Waziristan, another part of the tribal area, that killed three police officers and 10 civilians.
Jones and Panetta will meet the top civilian and military leadership Wednesday, including President Asif Ali Zardari, army chief Gen. Ashfaq Kayani and Lt. Gen. Shuja Pasha, the head of the Inter-Services Intelligence spy agency.
"The Pakistanis have done some good work on the Shahzad case," said a U.S. official in Washington, who spoke on the condition of anonymity as a matter of policy. "It's not a question of applying pressure, but it's important for them to have as fresh a picture as possible of how the United States views the threat from the tribal areas."
Pakistani experts have different perspective. "If there was a military operation in North Waziristan, it would open a Pandora's box of terrorism in Pakistan. They (the military) know they are incapable of handling North Waziristan," said Syed Saleem Shehzad, a journalist and expert on Pakistani extremist groups. "It would turn the whole of Pakistan into a battlefield."
The ease with which Shahzad, and before him another Pakistani-American terror suspect, David Headley, slipped in and out of North Waziristan, appears to have alarmed American officials.
However, Shahzad's claims of association with the Pakistani Taliban haven't been proved, and many in Pakistan, where anti-Americanism is at fever pitch, think that Shahzad's alleged bombing attempt was a CIA stunt to pressure Pakistan to attack North Waziristan.
The Pakistani military repeatedly has said that it is already fully stretched battling elsewhere in the northwest. At the same time, there are already thousands of Pakistani troops stationed in North Waziristan, so the logistics of an offensive would be relatively straightforward.
"The government will not launch an operation as it did in South Waziristan, to convey that not every (American) dictation is complied with," predicted Rustam Shah Mohmand, an analyst who formerly was Pakistani ambassador to Afghanistan. "I think we'll see small, limited, focused operations, against well-defined targets."
North Waziristan, part of the tribal region along the Afghan border, contains elements of al Qaida, Taliban and other Islamic extremists. It's one of the most dangerous places on earth, and an area that appears to be getting more extreme as Pakistan's jihadist movement becomes even more hardcore.
Last month, two well-known pro-Taliban former intelligence officials were kidnapped in North Waziristan, with one, Khalid Khawaja, an avowed admirer of Osama bin Laden, executed by kidnappers who suspected his loyalty to the cause.
Appeals that reportedly came from Mullah Omar, the Afghan Taliban leader, couldn't save his life, although a delegation that Omar sent did win the freedom of his colleague, a former spy known as Colonel Imam. The group that took them, the previously unknown Asian Tigers, is thought to be a radical offshoot of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a group that already was considered the most extreme Pakistani jihadi group.
The extremist landscape in North Waziristan is complicated by the fact that the big two established powers there, the Haqqani network and the forces of Gul Bahadur, are fighting U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan, not in Pakistan. Haqqani has a 30-year history with Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence spy agency, and Bahadur is believed to have a peace agreement with the Pakistani authorities, who don't consider Haqqani and Bahadur a threat to Pakistan.
The large-scale military offensive in South Waziristan, starting in October, forced the biggest Pakistani Taliban group, known as the TTP, to relocate from South Waziristan to North Waziristan. The TTP, which according to U.S. officials "directed" Shahzad's hapless bombing attempt, is closely allied with al Qaida. North Waziristan is the only one of the seven parts of the tribal area where the Pakistani military hasn't mounted a significant operation.
Also holed up in North Waziristan are extreme offshoots of militant groups from Pakistan's heartland Punjab province, including Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and a group run by Ilyas Kashmiri, a militant commander who met with Headley, who's on trial in Chicago in a plot to kill the Danish cartoonist who drew caricatures of the prophet Mohammed. All of these groups target the Pakistani state but, before 2001, they were part of a jihadist infrastructure that the Pakistani military and ISI supported.
(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent. Jonathan S. Landay contributed to this article from Washington.)
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