By Syed Saleem Shahzad
The military headquarters has decided in principle to mount a military operation in the North Waziristan tribal area before the start of the Taliban’s summer offensive in Afghanistan next year.
The decision has been taken at a point that Washington has dropped any idea of dialogue with the Taliban, preferring to rely solely on brute force - a sudden shift in policy that Pakistan refers to as changing horses in midstream.
At the same time, Pakistan's political leadership refuses to take ownership of the North Waziristan operation, leaving the armed forces alone to decide on its strategy.
The United States has been pressing Pakistan for many months to move against al-Qaeda and related militants based in the tribal area, which also serves as a crucial staging post for the Taliban-led insurgency across the porous border in Afghanistan. The US wants to see its successful drone missile attacks against militants followed up with ground action.
Although the Pakistan military has taken on militants in other tribal areas, Islamabad has been reluctant to send troops into the highly volatile North Waziristan, both for fear of a bitter fight and for a militant backlash across the country.
This would still be the case, and something that the army would have to consider very carefully.
"Given the environment [in North Waziristan] in which the Pakistan army is being forced to decide on an operation, it would definitely be counter-productive. It would be like playing with a beehive. The reaction would be disastrous, not only in Pakistani cities, but in Western capitals as well," a senior counter-terrorism official told Asia Times Online.
Pakistani army chief General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani has repeatedly urged his American counterpart to be pragmatic and seriously take into account the likelihood of a fierce reaction.
Nevertheless, the US and its Western allies are insistent that Pakistan should take action against al-Qaeda, given the exposure in recent months of al-Qaeda-linked terror networks in various countries with roots in Pakistan.
These include Pakistan-born Faisal Shahzad, who pleaded guilty in the United States to receiving funds and training from the Taliban in Pakistan to detonate a bomb in Times Square in New York in May, and the subsequent arrest of nine of his associates in Pakistan.
Similarly, the arrest of Ahmad Siddiqui in Afghanistan and the seizure of a German citizen and others in Pakistan showed that al-Qaeda was far from the spent force that many had believed.
Commander Ilyas Kashmiri, a Pakistani who cut his teeth in the Kashmir struggle against India and then moved to North Waziristan to side with al-Qaeda, is the mastermind behind recruiting, training and then launching operatives. Kashmiri is widely viewed in the Western media as the most dangerous person in the world.
North Waziristan is also the base of the powerful Haqqani network of Jalaluddin and his son Sirajuddin; it is a major driver of the insurgency in Afghanistan and is becoming increasingly more powerful and violent. It poses a serious threat to coalition forces and to the planned transition of responsibilities to Afghan forces to coincide with the planned beginning of a drawdown of foreign forces in the middle of next year.
For these reasons, Washington has applied relentless pressure on Pakistan - including both carrots and sticks - to force it to launch a full ground operation supported by the Pakistani Air Force and US drones.
Kayani, who is accredited with successes against militants in Swat-Malakand and South Waziristan and who essentially rescued Pakistani cities from falling to the Taliban, is concerned.
These earlier successes were a cunning blend of brute force and ceasefire agreements in which militants were pushed into a corner and then through smart backroom peace overtures brought into line. Kayani wants continuity of this policy and even to expand it across the region.
The Americans would prefer the army to go in guns blazing, firing at al-Qaeda and the Taliban as if at a partridge shoot.
Kayani, with politicians having washed their hands of any decision-making, while committed to action, prefers limited surgical strikes. He believes that the Americans simply do not appreciate the difficulties involved, nor that the country is economically reeling from devastating floods this year and that a full-out assault would rupture the peace process with militants in other areas. A vicious cycle of terror attacks would be the inevitable result.
US steps up the pressure
The real American pressure on Pakistan to mount a military operation in North Waziristan began in October 2009, but Pakistan stalled.
In the meantime, the US tried to initiate talks with the Taliban, which gave Pakistan further reason to delay taking action. By October this year, the US had come to realise that the wish to talk to the Taliban was a mirage, and in a strategic dialogue in Washington the US made a clear demand for Kayani to let loose his men.
In November, Richard Holbrooke, the US's special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, announced the US would reallocate US$500 million in aid funds to benefit flood victims - a clear encouragement for Pakistan.
Kayani could not be that easily swayed - the reality remained that even firing a single shot in North Waziristan would mean opening up a battle front. He advocated that such a momentous decision should be taken by parliament.
Kayani put out feelers for this. First, he contacted the president of Pakistan Muslim League, and the chief minister of Punjab, Shehbaz Sharif. He is a progressive politician and committed against militancy, especially since the recent attacks on shrines in Punjab. However, Shehbaz said it would not be wise for Pakistan to exhibit such a political will. He, however, assured the army chief of his support.
Minister of Interior Rahman Malik expressed the same sentiment. Similarly, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, when asked about an operation in North Waziristan, threw the ball into the army's court. "The military chief is fully empowered to take any decision regarding military operations."
A Pakistani counter-terrorism official involved in the recent unsuccessful peace overtures with the Taliban commented, "The Pakistan army was trying to make ground with the Taliban for negotiations, but now the Americans have abandoned everything and are pushing for an operation.
"They had said they wanted to speak to the 'good' Taliban, but the Haqqani network is no longer defined as good. If an operation is begun in North Waziristan, no matter how low-intensity, any chance for an end game through peace negotiations is gone. They cannot be switched on again and off again at will," the official said.
Kayani is in an unenviable position - damned if he mobilises his troops, damned if he does not, and abandoned by his political masters.