ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — A militant commander in northwest Pakistan tore up a peace deal with the Pakistani government Tuesday, dealing a major blow to the government's campaign against Islamist insurgents in the extremist-controlled Waziristan region.
The commander, Gul Bahadur, who heads the Pakistani Taliban in North Waziristan, ended his pact with Islamabad and threatened more attacks on the army after an assault on a military convoy in his area Sunday claimed the lives of at least 16 soldiers.
Pakistan's military had sought to confine the battle in Waziristan to warlord Baitullah Mehsud, a rival of Bahadur and an ally of al Qaida who's led the militant takeovers of several other regions in northwest Pakistan, but now it finds itself facing both Baitullah Mehsud and Bahadur, as well as a third Taliban commander in the region bordering Afghanistan. Maulvi Nazir, an ally of Bahadur, also announced the end of a peace agreement with Pakistan in recent days.
Until now, Nazir and Bahadur had focused on the insurgency in Afghanistan, threatening the U.S.-led coalition there but not Pakistan, and if Pakistan persists in its offensive, the battle in Waziristan, a base for Afghan insurgents and for al Qaida, is likely to have far-reaching consequences.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Idaho Statesman
Bahadur blamed missile strikes in his territory by American drone aircraft for turning him against the Pakistani government, and his move also could spur an ongoing debate over whether the attacks are doing more good than harm.
"This accord is being scrapped because of Pakistan's failure to stop the American drone attacks in North and South Waziristan," said Ahmadullah Ahmadi, a spokesman for Bahadur. "Since the army is attacking us in North and South Waziristan, we will also attack them."
There've been some American 40 drone strikes in the tribal area since the beginning of last year, mostly in Waziristan. The deadliest one occurred last week, and it reportedly killed some 80 people at a funeral in South Waziristan.
"If you're killing them (tribesmen) and at the same time expecting them not to retaliate, then you're expecting too much," said Ayaz Wazir, an analyst and Wazir tribal elder. "It's generally believed in the tribal area that it's the government that's broken the (peace) agreements."
The Obama administration contends that the drone attacks are hurting the ability of Taliban and al Qaida commanders to plan and mount operations in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and that the domestic political fallout from the strikes hasn't hurt the Pakistani government too badly, said two U.S. officials who requested anonymity because they weren't authorized to speak publicly.
One of the officials, however, told McClatchy that Pakistan last week lodged its first formal protest of the drone strikes — called a demarche — with the State Department after two attacks on the same day claimed more than 80 lives.
The demarche "reflects a gap between our perceptions and their perceptions," the U.S. official said.
The new U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, is skeptical that the attacks are worth the political price they've exacted, and he's reviewing the tactic as one of his first acts, according to two knowledgeable U.S. officials who've discussed the issue with him.
Bahadur and Nazir are from the Wazir tribe, while Baitullah Mehsud is a Mehsud tribesman. Analysts said that both tribes could make for an overwhelming enemy for the Pakistani army. Baitullah Mehsud is reckoned to command some 10,000 men, and the Wazir groups would have thousands more.
"You have to have a strategy to isolate Baitullah, clear the Mehsud area, then make arrangements for (fighting) Maulvi Nazir and Gul Bahadur," said Asad Munir, a former head of military intelligence for the tribal area. "You have to make every effort to separate the Wazirs and the Mehsuds."
The Pakistani army already appears to be stretched thin by a continuing operation in the Swat valley in the North West Frontier Province, as well as operations in the Bajaur and Mohmand regions in the tribal area. Waziristan, where an offensive in the south is in its "preliminary" stages, is a mountainous area that's ideal for guerrilla warfare.
In February 2008, Pakistani authorities signed a secret peace deal with Bahadur, according to U.S. and Pakistani officials who couldn't be named because of the sensitivity of the issue. Since then, North Waziristan has been relatively trouble-free for Pakistan.
Pakistani authorities last week announced a bounty for the top Taliban commanders in the tribal area. The list didn't include Bahadur or Nazir, whom the army, according to many accounts, considered "good" Taliban, unlike "bad Taliban" Mehsud, whose violence has been directed at Pakistan.
The United States and other Western countries have been critical of Pakistan's history of peace deals with selected Taliban militants, and they view Bahadur and Nazir as a danger to Afghanistan.
(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent. Jonathan S. Landay contributed to this article from Washington)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY