MAMAD GAT, Pakistan - A top Pakistani commander said Wednesday that the army intended to start operations against extremists in a strategic tribal region that juts deep into Afghanistan, part of a rolling campaign to eliminate insurgents on its side of the border.
But Lt. Gen. Asif Yasin Malik said the force had no immediate plan to attack the neighboring extremist haven of North Waziristan, an al-Qaeda stronghold from which many of the deadliest attacks against U.S. troops in Afghanistan are organized and launched.
The United States has been pressing Pakistan's army to move into the region, which - unlike others close to the frontier - has not seen offensives over the last four years. By not going into North Waziristan, however, the military is sending a message that runs counter to expectations that the United States has gained fresh leverage after killing Osama bin Laden deep inside the country.
Malik briefed reporters who were escorted by the army to Mohmand, close to the Afghanistan border. The trip was intended to showcase army success against extremists in that region. The area and six other frontier regions are normally closed to journalists.
Commanders said Mohmand was 80 percent cleared of insurgents after an operation that began in January. Operations were continuing in areas close to the frontier, and the briefing room was shaken several times as artillery shells were launched from the base.
Malik, who oversees military operations in the tribal areas and other parts of the northwest bordering Afghanistan, said he met last month with religious and community leaders in the Kurram agency who asked for a military operation against extremists.
Kurram has seen violence between Shiite and Sunni Muslims for years, and is also home to insurgents.
According to some accounts, the Haqqani network, a faction of the Afghan Taliban, was shifting fighters there from North Waziristan to give them a new route to stage attacks in Afghanistan. Violence has continued despite a recent peace deal between the two sects, and Malik said that unrest was being fomented by outside extremists who benefited from the instability.
Extremist groups based in the northwest have launched hundreds of attacks inside Pakistan in recent years, and the army has moved aggressively to retake areas from them. But, to the annoyance of the United States, Pakistan has not aggressively pursued extremists who focus on Afghanistan, not Pakistani forces.
North Waziristan is now seen as the main extremist sanctuary in the northwest. As well as the Haqqani network, it is also home to al-Qaeda and Pakistani Taliban fighters. The United States regularly strikes targets there with drone-fired missiles.
Bin Laden's killing in an army town led to accusations that Pakistan security forces were either hiding him or were incompetent. Since the raid, Washington has been increasing pressure on Islamabad to take more action against extremists.
An offensive in North Waziristan would undoubtedly earn Islamabad much-needed goodwill in Washington. This week a local newspaper reported that the army had decided to launch an offensive. Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, was asked about the report and said it was an encouraging sign.
Malik dismissed the reports as "media hype" and insisted the army's posture was unchanged.
Pakistan's main intelligence agency issued a rare media statement Wednesday to deny it was behind the abduction and killing of a journalist who was investigating terrorism.
Speculation that the Inter-Services Intelligence was linked to
the slaying of Syed Saleem Shahzad has added to pressure on the agency, already facing international suspicions that elements within it sheltered Osama bin Laden in an army town before he was killed there last month by American commandos.
Before Shahzad was killed, he told a human-rights activist
that he had been threatened by intelligence agents. His body was found Tuesday showing signs of torture, and he was buried on Wednesday.
Pakistan was the deadliest country for journalists in 2010, with at least eight killed in the line of duty, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. Six died in suicide attacks, the group said in a report late last year.
The ISI operates largely outside the law and routinely detains suspected extremists, political activists, and separatists, without charge.
- Associated Press