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Analysts Debate Pakistani Troops' Success in Operation Against Militants
Gary Thomas
VOA, Washington
31 Mar 2004, 18:58 UTC


In a just-completed operation, Pakistani army troops launched a massive offensive against suspected terrorist hideouts in a remote border region. Officials have declared the operation a success and the troops have been withdrawn from the area.

Many analysts believe the 12-day Pakistani army operation had both military and public relations goals. Former Central Intelligence Agency operative Milt Bearden, who has extensive experience in Pakistan and Afghanistan, says Pakistan's president, General Pervez Musharraf, wanted not only to root out terrorist hideouts, but to impress U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, who was en route to the region for a visit when the operation was launched, and the assembled international media.

"In anybody's bureaucracy, when the word comes down that the president has just called and said, 'what are you getting out of that, he's being interviewed by CNN in an hour and [Colin] Powell is on his way in also to see him.' So people at that moment began talking about high-value targets," said Mr. Bearden.

There were stories that a so-called "high-value target", possibly even the number two man in al-Qaida, Ayman al-Zawahiri, had been cornered in the offensive in the South Waziristan tribal area. But as the operation died down, so did the rumors, until only snippets and fragments were left. Top terrorist leaders are believed to have escaped, and no senior al-Qaida figures are known to have been captured. A man killed in the operation was at first identified as an al-Qaida spy chief, but was later found to be a local intelligence operative.

James Phillips, a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, says that despite the hype, the Pakistan government did partially achieve its goal of making a dent in the terrorist presence along the Pakistan-Afghan border.

"I think it was successful in the sense that the Pakistanis were able to dislodge what looks like a very sizable infestation of militants and was able to capture many of them and kill a few of them," said Mr. Phillips. "But it was an incomplete success because it appears that some of the higher-value targets, the top leaders that were surrounded, appear to have escaped."

Teresita Schaffer, former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for South Asia, says the South Waziristan operation may have future political ramifications for General Musharraf.

"Casualty figures also show the army having lost fewer people than those they were fighting against, which will certainly be cited by those who want to argue that this has been a success," she said. "But, for the Pakistani army, at the very least, the public perception of this is going to be ambiguous. And that is a complication for General Musharraf."

The Pakistani leader broke a long-standing taboo in sending troops into a tribal area. Pakistan's tribal areas are wild regions that successive rulers of the region have over the years tried to tame, but without success. Modern Pakistani governments have chosen to carry on that tradition, letting the areas govern themselves by tribal law. But, says Ms. Schaffer, General Musharraf has changed that relationship.

"The fact that the Pakistani Army went into Waziristan at all is a big deal, and could turn into a major change in the relationship between that area and established authority in Pakistan, so that the judgment of whether this has been a success or a failure I think is going to have to made over a much longer time, as you see how that relationship plays out," she said.

Pakistani officials say they have won pledges from local leaders to continue the fight against terrorists in areas under tribal control, but it is not clear how those pledges of cooperation will be verified.