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Pakistan army steers clear of 'global terror epicentre'

Artillery fire in Mohmand
Image caption Artillery fire is directed at Taliban fighters in a valley in Mohmand agency

Pakistan is under growing American pressure to launch an all-out assault on an area it has been reluctant to touch - the lawless tribal region of North Waziristan, a hornets' nest of foreign and local militants.

The deadly mix includes al-Qaeda, the Pakistan Taliban and Afghan insurgents from the Haqqani group - blamed for some of the worst attacks against US and other Nato troops across the border in Afghanistan.

Washington says the area is "the epicentre of global terrorism". The Pakistan army says it is "peaceful and quiet". And senior commanders are in no hurry to carry out a major offensive there.

"I have no such plans," said Lt Gen Asif Yasin Malik, who oversees military operations in the tribal belt.

If there were to be an all-out assault on North Waziristan, this seasoned commander would be leading it.

"I don't see something in weeks or days, some juggernaut or sweeping blitzkrieg taking place - I don't think that is happening," he told the BBC.

He was speaking during a military-guided tour of Mohmand agency, one of several active battlegrounds in the tribal belt.

Picking battles

A media briefing was punctuated by the deafening sound of outgoing artillery fire.

Troops were targeting Taliban fighters, corralled in one last valley. The army says most of Mohmand is now militant-free and it is keen to show off its achievements - including a rebuilt school, which had been a Taliban base, and an arms dump.

Operation Lightning, in Mohmand, is part of a series of military assaults in recent years.

Troops have been moving from north to south, targeting militants in six of the seven tribal districts, known as agencies.

The army picks its battles carefully - focusing on militants who attack Pakistan rather than those attacking Afghanistan, like the Haqqani group.

Hence North Waziristan has been spared a major assault, though 34,000 troops have been deployed there.

"We will undertake operations when we want to," Lt Gen Malik said, "and when it is in the national interest."

But Pakistan's national interest is very different from that of the United States.

'Long-standing relationship'

For Washington, the al-Qaeda-allied Haqqani network is a major threat to its troops in Afghanistan, and an obstacle to a negotiated solution there.

Image caption The army rules out any 'blitzkrieg' in North Waziristan

The US believes old friends in the ISI, Pakistan's military intelligence agency, are protecting Jalaluddin Haqqani, the aged founder of the group.

America's top military officer, Adm Mike Mullen, has spoken publicly of a "long-standing relationship" between the Haqqani network and the ISI.

Analysts here say Pakistan's military establishment views the insurgent group as a strategic asset, which could help protect its interests after international forces withdraw from Afghanistan.

The army denies shielding the Haqqani group and says it is overstretched.

"As a military commander, I like to stabilise the areas that are unstable," said Lt Gen Malik, "and then be in a position to go to North Waziristan or wherever I am tasked to. I can't undertake multiple operations at the same time."

Far from preparing for an all-out offensive, the army says North Waziristan is "stable enough" for development projects - including a $50m trade corridor.

If the military does take the fight to this treacherous terrain, the operation is likely to be limited and selective - striking al-Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban, but leaving the Haqqanis more or less untouched.

"Cosmetic actions could be undertaken," said Najam Rafique, of Pakistan's Institute for Strategic Studies, "but the military would be loath to take any forceful action.

"They have already been carrying out air strikes there, but not enough to satisfy the Americans."

But he warns that if Pakistan did try to satisfy the US, it could pay a high price.

"This would be the most dangerous operation so far," he said. "We could expect a major backlash from the militants."

That was the case after the ground assault on South Waziristan in October 2009.

Hundreds were killed in revenge attacks around the country after troops moved in.

But analysts say that operation was also selective - focusing on the Pakistan Taliban in the eastern half, rather than Haqqani-allied fighters to the west.

Relaxed

And while speculation has been building about an offensive on North Waziristan, sources say the Haqqanis have been busy packing their bags.

Image caption Army operations in North Waziristan will only take place when in the national interest, officers say

They have already left the area, according to one reliable source, heading for neighbouring Kurrum Agency, or across the border to the Afghan province of Khost.

And getting out of North Waziristan has become easier in recent days. Security has been relaxed along the main route east, leading out of the tribal belt.

Troops are no longer checking every vehicle on the road from Khajori to Bakakhele, as was the case.

The change in procedures is due to the "improved security situation", according to an army spokesman.

"Unnecessary checkpoints have been removed so people can move freely," he said.

"We feel this area is secure enough. There is no relaxation further north, closer to the Haqqani area."

But he admitted that if the Haqqanis wanted to get out, they could find a way.

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