What if there were a major development in the war on terror and nobody paid attention? Well, it would still be a major development in the war on terror. The event in question is a offensive by Pakistan’s army against the Taliban’s haven in South Waziristan. Pakistan’s government is playing this down by merely calling it a move to “reinforce” positions in Waziristan, and by formally denying that an “offensive” has been launched at all. But this rhetoric is pretty clearly designed to prevent a backlash by Pakistan’s many Islamist sympathizers.
The Western media are generally ignoring developments in Waziristan and/or playing them down. For one thing, reporters long ago fled the tribal regions, which in any case were largely closed to outsiders. That gives government bulletins an outsized influence on the press, and the government keeps its reports focused on small specifics — like the killing of a few “miscreants” in some obscure small town which no one in the West has ever heard of. Yet it’s increasingly evident that we are finally seeing a serious move by the Pakistani army against the Islamists’ core refuge in Waziristan.
The best coverage of developments in Waziristan comes from Pakistani sources, which retain connections to private sources in the tribal areas. Here’s a report from Pakistan’s Dawn entitled, “Troops advance with tanks for major assault: Clashes continue in S. Waziristan.” Here’s a story from Pakistan’s Nation, “Army launches new operation in SWA” (South Waziristan Agency). Despite the limitations on reporting from this region, the Western press could be saying much more about the Waziristan offensive. Since this story tends to show that Musharraf and Pakistan’s military are in fact fighting terrorism, and since it is a positive development in the war on terror, the media finds this item, shall we say, uninteresting.
Notice also that yesterday, General David Rodriguez, who commands American forces in eastern Afghanistan, said that he did not expect the Taliban to launch its usual yearly offensive in Afghanistan this coming spring. That is a remarkable statement. The press attributes Rodriguez’s comment to the Taliban’s growing interest in creating disruptions within Pakistan, and that’s partly true. But actually predicting the absence of a spring offensive in Afghanistan is a bold and significant statement. I think it reflects Rodriguez’s understanding that the Pakistani army has got a key section of the Taliban bottled up and under assault across the border in Pakistan. But U.S. sources themselves are playing down the significance of this development, so as not to stimulate a backlash among Pakistanis angry at their army’s cooperation with America.
There is at least the prospect of a major shift in the war on terror here. If (and it’s a big if) the Pakistani army can successfully prosecute its campaign against the Taliban and its al-Qaeda allies in South Waziristan, that will give us a huge boost in Afghanistan. But this is only the beginning of a complicated and risky new phase in the war on terror. There are signs that the fighting will spread to North Waziristan. That would mean an ultimate showdown in the Islamists’ last big refuge (and the site of al-Qaeda’s many terror-training camps), and it’s unclear that the Pakistani army will be up to that challenge.
Also, Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud has promised major attacks on security installations in the capital if the army presses forward with its attack. So we could soon see some serious terrorism in Islamabad and other major Pakistani cities, with the real possibility of destabilization. Much depends on broader public reaction to the assault in Waziristan. But with the press and government playing this down, and with the public distracted by the election campaign, there is at least a decent chance that Pakistan’s army will be able to deal the Taliban and al-Qaeda a major blow in Waziristan, without excessive blowback in Pakistan itself.