ISLAMABAD // The United States carried out missile strikes in new areas of Pakistan's tribal region yesterday as intelligence officials and political analysts in Islamabad said the Pakistani military was on the verge of an offensive against Taliban and al Qa'eda militants in North Waziristan.
"The decision has been taken," said an official of the military's Inter Services Intelligence directorate, speaking on condition of anonymity.
"Limited, targeted actions started four months ago and their intensity will increase, for sure, but the [army] chief is still undecided on a full-scale offensive because of the risk of a major escalation that it would entail."
The official spoke as missile attacks launched from United States drones spread to the Khyber tribal region, killing 54 militants in three strikes yesterday, the Reuters news agency quoted unnamed Pakistan security officials as saying. The attacks in Tirah Valley were the second in the past four days.
Drone attacks, tacitly approved by the Pakistani government, were previously limited to "boxes" of territory in South and North Waziristan.
Dubbed the "epicentre of terror" by Barack Obama, the US president, North Waziristan stands out as the last of seven north-west tribal regions bordering Afghanistan, known collectively as the Fata, that remains largely in control of the militants.
The drone strikes to Khyber come a day after Mr Obama unveiled a review of his strategy to defeat al Qa'eda and reverse the nine-year Afghan Taliban insurgency. The president welcomed Pakistan's assistance following a series of offensives in the last 20 months.
Since last year, the Pakistani military has deployed nearly 30,000 troops in North Waziristan, establishing bases in the handful of towns and tight control over major roads.
In all, Pakistan has moved 140,000 soldiers out of a standing army of about 500,000 into the Fata.
However, the military has been reluctant to launch an all-out offensive because it could prompt otherwise disparate militant groups to join forces in a fight for survival, analysts said.
"If militant groups conclude that the Pakistani government intends to annihilate them, they will unite. Then the war won't be confined to North Waziristan - the backlash would hit the whole country," said Ashraf Ali, the president of Fata Research Centre, an Islamabad-based think tank.
Intensified US diplomatic pressure and an upsurge in drone attacks in the territory since October has convinced the Pakistani government that it should no longer put off an offensive, political analysts said. They said Washington also has significant economic leverage over Pakistan, because US support is vital to secure loans and aid from the International Monetary Fund and other donors needed to keep its struggling economy afloat.
"I think the government and the military know they have to act. The language from Washington has become much more impatient. I expect to see some activity there within the next 30 to 60 days," said Najam Sethi, a Lahore-based political analyst and television show host.
A full-scale offensive in North Waziristan would, however, require Pakistan to consolidate its gains in other regions of the Fata and then reposition its forces, the US ambassador to Pakistan, Cameron Munter, said yesterday.
"We would like them to move tomorrow … but we understand they're telling us honestly about the capacity of their military, and when they are able, we are convinced they will move in," he said at a press conference in Islamabad.
The tribal analysts said growing talk of an operation had convinced militant groups that they would have to leave North Waziristan.
Initially, the top commander of the Haqqani Network faction in North Waziristan, Hafiz Gul Bahadur, had responded by distributing pamphlets in the region warning that an offensive would lead to "perpetual war".
The Haqqani Network is the biggest threat to US-led forces in eastern Afghanistan, but has not been targeted by the Pakistani military because it has avoided armed confrontation with it, and has used its influence to negotiate truces with some Pakistani militant factions.
Soon after, however, Mr Bahadur issued a second pamphlet, saying the militants would simply relocate to Afghanistan in the event.
"North Waziristan houses a big concentration of all the militant groups, but the situation has been changing because of talk about the operation. Many have left or are in the process of doing so," Mr Ali said.
According to Pakistani media reports, the Haqqani Network has since October sought to establish an alternative safe haven in the Kurram tribal agency.
It has offered to facilitate the lifting of a three-year blockade of the Shiite-majority Parachinar area by rival Sunni tribesmen and sectarian militants.
During secret talks in Islamabad, the Haqqanis have demanded safe right of passage into Afghanistan, but have been rejected by Shiite members of the Turi tribe, who see the offer as a ruse, the analysts said.