ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Waziristan, the remote area that's the epicenter of Taliban and al Qaida militants in Pakistan, is set to become the next war zone in the nation's fight against Islamic extremists, where clashes between insurgents and the army erupted over the weekend.
So far, there are just skirmishes in Waziristan but the key U.S. ally plans a full-scale military offensive there this summer, according to Pakistani and Western officials, a fight that is certain to be deadlier than the current operation in Swat valley and with profound international repercussions.
Western leaders have repeatedly said that international terrorist plots are being hatched in Waziristan, while the area provides a sanctuary for Afghan insurgents and al Qaida leaders, possibly including Osama bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al Zawahiri.
South Waziristan, a part of the wild tribal territory that lies along the Afghan border, houses Pakistan's public enemy number one, warlord Baitullah Mehsud, who has thousands of armed followers around him. The insurgency across the country is fueled by fighters and suicide bombers sent by Mehsud. North Waziristan is also under the control of a Taliban warlord.
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Pakistani forces are making rapid progress through Swat valley, in the North West Frontier Province, and they've previously claimed to have cleared two other areas that were under Taliban domination, Bajaur and Mohmand, which are part of the tribal territory.
But the specter of Waziristan, the fountainhead of extremism, now looms.
"The final battle will be fought in South Waziristan," said Asad Munir, formerly head of military intelligence for the tribal area and the North West Frontier Province. "They've started it (the offensive against the insurgents) and if they leave it mid-way, they should be mentally prepared to hand this country over to the Taliban. They have to complete it. There is no other way."
Pakistan has launched multiple operations against Taliban on its soil since 2004 but critics say that each time they have been half-heartedly pursued and ended with a truce that left the militants in control, including a peace deal in South Waziristan in early 2008.
But, under intense international pressure, the current offensive in Swat, and before that the recent operation in Bajaur, have finally hit the insurgents hard.
Failure now would hugely embolden the militants, Asad said. Taking back Swat and the tribal area, especially Waziristan, would deny the insurgents the vast tracts of territory that they now control, where training camps and schools for indoctrinating suicide bombers are freely run.
While Washington and other western allies pressed Pakistan to take action in Swat, which lies just 100 miles from the capital Islamabad, the valley is not thought to be a significant base for Afghan insurgents or al Qaida. But Waziristan is seen by Western countries, from the United States to Spain, as crucial to their homeland security.
"Waziristan is at the heart of Western counter-terrorism interests in this region," said a Western security official based in Pakistan, who could not be named because of the sensitivity of the issue. "Waziristan would hit the sweet spot for us. But we'd rather not have a campaign than a campaign (in Waziristan) that failed."
Waziristan provides a crucial safe haven to Afghan insurgents, as well as a launching pad for Pakistani jihadists heading to Afghanistan. It is also a headquarters for international terrorists.
The offensive in Swat has led to bloody terrorist reprisals, with a chilling threat issued last week by the Taliban to escalate the attacks by striking some of Pakistan's biggest cities.
Revenge for army action in Waziristan could cause carnage across the country, severely testing hard-won public support for taking on the Taliban, even destabilizing the country. It would also add to the humanitarian crisis of people displaced by fighting, which stands now at some 3 million.
Militarily, Waziristan poses a huge challenge to Pakistani forces. Its harsh mountainous terrain is ideally suited to guerrilla warfare, while the Taliban is concentrated in the area, where they have been entrenched for years, allowing them to build tunnels, bunkers and fortifications.
Unlike Swat, where the population largely welcomed the army once they saw that it was a serious operation, the fierce tribal people of Waziristan are deeply hostile to outsiders, including the Pakistani military.
South Waziristan, covering 2,500 square miles, has lawless regions to three sides — North Waziristan to the north, Baluchistan province to the south and the Afghan province of Paktika to the west, providing ready escape routes to the insurgents.
Analysts said that a successful operation would need to seal off South Waziristan, especially the option of retreat into Afghanistan, requiring strong co-ordination with the U.S.-led forces across the border. Joint Pakistan-U.S. planning for the operation is likely to be underway, mirroring the collaboration undertaken last year when the Bajaur offensive began and U.S. forces intercepted fleeing Pakistani Taliban in the bordering Afghan province of Kunar. The Waziristan campaign should coincide with the arrival of the extra "surge" of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
"They should co-operate with the Americans and employ the classic 'hammer and anvil' technique, with Pakistan forces isolating South Waziristan and pushing them (the Taliban) towards the border," said Javed Hussain, a former Brigadier with Pakistan's Special Services Group commando unit. "That's where the American forces should act as the anvil, and the Pakistani forces as the hammer. In between the two, the insurgents are crushed."
The operation in Swat valley, launched on 7 May, could be over in "two to three days" senior Pakistan defense official Syed Athar Ali told a conference in Singapore Sunday. There is speculation that Waziristan could follow as early as this month (June), though July or August may be more likely given the need to stabilize Swat.
Sensing the coming showdown, Taliban in South Waziristan have started to attack army bases and check posts in the area, with 25 militants and at three soldiers reported killed by the authorities Sunday.
Shah is McClatchy's special correspondent in Pakistan and is based in Islamabad.
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