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Pakistan preparing for Waziristan operation: Panetta

August 15, 2012

US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. -AFP Photo

WASHINGTON, Aug 14: The United States and Pakistan are discussing various options for rooting out terrorist bases from the tribal belt but have not yet finalised a plan, diplomatic sources told Dawn.

On Monday, US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta told AP news agency that Pakistan had decided to launch a military operation against the Pakistani Taliban in North Waziristan.

Also on Monday, Pakistan’s Army Chief Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani called for national unity “in the battle against terrorism.”

Earlier this week, a Pakistani security official urged US and Nato forces to seal the Afghan border from their side if Pakistan launched an operation against the militants.

Such statements were interpreted in the US media as indicating that a military operation in North Waziristan was imminent.

Senior diplomatic sources, however, told Dawn that in recent meetings with senior US officials, Pakistan conveyed its “commitment to fighting militants and the two sides discussed various options but no plan has yet been finalised”.

But Secretary Panetta insisted that Gen Kayani has discussed the planned operation in North Waziristan with Gen John Allen, the top US commander in Afghanistan.

And the US media reported that a possible joint operation against the Haqqani network and the Pakistani Taliban bases inside Afghanistan was also discussed in a meeting earlier this month between the ISI and CIA chiefs. The ISI chief, Lt-Gen Zaheerul Islam, visited Washington in early August.

Secretary Panetta, however, said that Pakistan’s main target would be the Pakistani Taliban, and not the Haqqani network, which carries cross-border attacks on Nato and US forces in Afghanistan.

The United States, he said, welcomed the planned operation, even though it was not focused on America’s main enemy in the region, the Haqqani network.

Mr Panetta said the Pakistanis had talked about this operation for a long time but now he had reasons to believe that the offensive would start “in the near future”.

“Frankly, I'd lost hope that they were going do anything about it. But it does appear that they in fact are going to take that step,” he said.

The US defence secretary also acknowledged that relations with the Pakistani military had improved “a great deal” after a US apology over the Nov 26 air strike that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers.

Mr Panetta said that Generals Allen and Kayani also “discussed concerns” about the Haqqanis and their cross-border activities.

“Gen. Kayani did indicate that they had developed plans to go into Waziristan,” he said. “Our understanding is that hopefully they're going to take that step in the near future. I can't tell you when. But the indication that we have is that they are prepared to conduct that operation soon.”

Secretary Panetta’s categorical statement about a planned operation in North Waziristan contrasts sharply with Pakistan’s claims that so far it’s not planning a new military offensive.

Pakistan argues that it has already committed tens of thousands of troops to fighting militants along the Afghan border and does not have enough resources to launch another major operation.

But diplomatic observers in Washington say that both sides are using public statements to achieve certain objectives.

The statements by American officials, they argue, are apparently aimed at seeking a public commitment from Pakistan while the Pakistanis are reluctant to do so.

The observers believe that Pakistan’s position reflect two possibilities: 1, the plans are still in initial stages and 2, Pakistan does not want to alert the Taliban by publicly committing itself to an operation.

The observers are not surprised at Mr Panetta’s support to an operation in North Waziristan, even if it is not directed at the Haqqanis. They say that a major operation in that region will ultimately include the Haqqanis as well because the group has links to the Pakistani Taliban.

If Pakistan launches such an operation, the Americans will help them by targeting TTP bases inside Afghanistan, the observers say.