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Criticism grows as Pakistani military pursues limited offensive

PESHAWAR, Pakistan — Pakistan's fitful military operation against Islamist extremists pushed into its third day Monday, but there was no sign of overt combat — and growing criticism of the army's failure to crack down on the Taliban and al Qaida, which operate out of the country's lawless tribal belt.

A senior official in the North West Frontier Province, Afrasiab Khattak, said that despite the election of a civilian government in February, the army — with the support of President Pervez Musharraf — continues to dictate Pakistan's policy toward Afghanistan and to use the tribal belt sanctuaries to undermine the U.S.-backed Afghan government.

The military operation has consisted primarily of isolated assaults on buildings used by warlords in Khyber agency in the tribal belt, which have met almost no resistance. The main targets were the compounds of Khyber militant leader Mangal Bagh, whose religious warriors had for months been menacing the outskirts of the provincial capital, Peshawar. The lightly armed Frontier Corps paramilitary was used, rather than the regular army.

Army spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas said that it would be "premature" to start an offensive in South Waziristan, a part of the tribal zone known for more hard-core militants, as the government still hoped for a peace deal there. "This operation is to clear the suburbs of Peshawar," Abbas said.

Bagh himself was on the other side of Khyber agency, close to the Afghan border in the remote Tirah valley, when troops blew up his home in the town of Bara, which is just outside Peshawar. Whether the military presses on to the Tirah valley will be a key test of its resolve, experts said.

Talat Masood, a retired general turned military analyst, said: "If he (Bagh) is not pursued, then this is a PR exercise, which is very dangerous. It would be a grave mistake if they did not follow through and pursue this group to the Tirah valley and also stop them escaping to Afghanistan. That would just embolden them."

The military also has blown up a series of compounds that Bagh used and an outpost of his enemy, Qazi Mehboob, whom he's battling in a bloody skirmish in the Tirah valley.

On Monday, a building in the Khyber area used by Bagh's close ally Haji Namdar was mysteriously destroyed, killing a reported seven of his fighters. Namdar's men claimed that it was destroyed by a missile strike, possibly from U.S. aircraft coming in from Afghanistan. The Pakistani forces denied involvement. It's possible that explosives stored there simply ignited, however.

The offensive thus far has avoided Pakistan's homegrown Taliban movement, which is holed up along with its Afghan counterparts in other parts of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, such as Bajaur and South Waziristan, the home of Baitullah Mehsud, the leader of Pakistan's Taliban. From there, they can slip across the border easily to pursue their "holy war" in Afghanistan.

Khattak is a prominent politician and human rights activist who serves as a "peace envoy" for the newly elected government of the North West Frontier Province, and his criticism echoed the United States' concerns.

"Unfortunately, the (Taliban) sanctuaries have not been dismantled. They are still functioning. The Pakistan state has all the power. The problem is that we lack political will," he told McClatchy.

"They (Musharraf and the Pakistan army) want the Afghan government to fail," he said.

A "hangover of the 'strategic depth' policy is still running," he said.

He was referring to the Pakistani army's doctrine calling for a cooperative regime in Kabul to prevent Afghanistan from siding with India in the event of another India-Pakistan war. Islamabad had backed the Taliban government, which held power in Kabul from 1996 until a U.S.-led intervention ousted it in late 2001.

"General Musharraf's policy toward Afghanistan has had a duality. While he claimed to be supporting the broad process, his government tolerated sanctuaries of the fighters. The sanctuaries were in FATA; the fighters were fighting in Afghanistan. That is the root cause of the problem," Khattak said.

Musharraf, the army chief until the end of last year, was supposed to have retreated to a ceremonial role, and the military said it would be subservient to civilian rule. But Khattak, who's a leader of the Awami National Party and heads the North West Frontier Province government's negotiations with militants, said the army was still dominant.

"In the past, the Afghan policy has been led by the (Pakistan) army. ... I have no reason for saying it has been reversed. Actions speak louder than words."

(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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