Pakistan's paramilitary forces Friday launched an operation in the Khyber Agency to clear the supply route for the US-led NATO forces in Afghanistan. The operation comes only two days after the government authorized Chief of Army Staff, General General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, to launch fresh military operations in tribal areas.
Ironically, the targeted rebel leader in the Khyber Agency, Mangal Bagh, had no direct links to the Taliban. Mangal Bagh is chief of a murky local religious movement Lashkr-e-Islam.
During the operation, two hideouts of Lashkr-e-Islam were blown up and security forces also destroyed the house of movement's chief Mangal Bagh.
The Khyber Tribal Agency, which includes supply routes vital to NATO troops in neighboring Afghanistan, had been quiet until about four months ago, when a local warlord called Manghal Bagh began marshaling his forces there.
Who is Mangal Bagh, an illiterate former bus driver, who challenged the writ of the government in Khyber Agency in recent months?
The leader of the Awami National Party, Afrasiab Khattack, which now governs the North West Frontier Province of which Peshawar is the capital, has said he believed Mangal Bagh, and his men were a creation of Pakistan's powerful Inter Services Intelligence agency.
Afrasiab Khattack's statement implies that Pakistan's intelligence agency is creating a security situation to launch military operation in Pakistan's volatile tribal territories.
Alluding to an army operation earlier this year against the Taliban movement leader Baitullah Mehsud from which Mr. Mehsud emerged alive with most of his forces intact, Mr. Khattack said: "In the past, these operations have been inconclusive...We will have to wait and see if this one is conclusive."
The build-up of military forces in the Khyber Agency and the city of Peshawar, a densely packed urban hub about 30 miles from the border with Afghanistan, signals a major strategic shift in the country's struggle to quell extremist activity.
In a meeting between Pakistan's security and political leaders in Islamabad on Wednesday, the new Pakistani government agreed to the use of military force to combat militants. Until now, the government has sought to carry out negotiations with the militants in the tribal region, pulling back troops from sensitive regions while it conducted negotiations with Taliban commanders.
The government's decision has prompted immediate criticism in the National Assembly where parliamentarians warned that the government would further aggravate the situation through the use of force. Even a prominent political leader of North West Frontier Province, Maulana Fazlur Rehman, cautioned that it was a matter of months when the NWFP was no longer part of the country.
Many political analysts fear that a major clash between Pakistani security forces and militants in Peshawar, a city with three million population, could spark a large-scale conflict that could engulf the entire North-West Frontier in violence. In the 1980s, the Americans used the city as rear base for the so-called "mujahedeen" backed by Washington to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan.
In an immediate response from the Pakistani Taliban, Baitullah Mehsud, whose arrest is demanded by the US, said he was halting talks with the authorities. "We are suspending peace talks with the government because the government is constantly using force against us," Mehsud told AFP by satellite telephone from his stronghold in the South Waziristan tribal district.
"The government is not showing any seriousness and is using force against us. But if the government takes any military action we are also ready for martyrdom," he said.
Pakistani authorities say that the current operation will last less than one week but it is not clear which tribal region will be the next target of the military forces as the US ally in the "war on terror" remains under constant pressure to deal with the militancy with a strong hand while ignoring the causes and motives behind this militancy.
To borrow Rahimullah Yusufzai, a senior analyst from Peshawar, the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) are attracting a lot of attention worldwide, and for all the wrong reasons.
He said all seven tribal Agencies in this unique administrative unit are suffering from violence in varying degrees and there isn't much hope that the situation would become normal anytime soon.
"As there are strong links between the militants operating on both sides of the Pak-Afghan border and the US-led armies in Afghanistan and the Pakistan Army in FATA are committed to fight them in their respective areas of operation, we have to accept the reality that the Pakistani tribal belt will remain a battleground for the foreseeable future," Yusufzai concluded.
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