ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Pakistan announced late Sunday that it would fight warlord Baitullah Mehsud in Waziristan in a gamble that will see the Pakistani troops confront the fountainhead of Taliban and al Qaida extremism.
The move signals that Islamabad is serious about fighting Islamic extremism, but promises to engulf the country in bloodshed. Mehsud's terrorist network spans Pakistan and he has grown so powerful that U.S. officials believe he poses an "existential" threat to nuclear-armed Pakistan, a key American ally.
The determination to take the offensive to Waziristan, part of Pakistan's tribal area that runs along the Afghan border, also marks an important turn in the struggle against al Qaida. Both Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al Zawahiri, are thought possibly to have taken refuge there. U.S. officials have called Mehsud, who leads an estimated 10,000 heavily armed men and is thought to have been the mastermind behind the 2007 assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, a "key al Qaida facilitator."
"The military and law enforcement agencies have been ordered to carry out a full-fledged operation to eliminate these beasts and killers by using all resources," said Owais Ghani, governor of North West Frontier Province, the top official responsible for the tribal area.
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"Baitullah Mehsud is the root cause of all evils," Ghani added. "The government has decided that to secure the innocent citizens from terrorists, a meaningful, durable and complete action is to be taken."
The offensive has been expected since the Pakistani army in April moved to evict a branch of Mehsud's Taliban network from the Swat valley. Waziristan will be a much more difficult battle.
Ghani said that the "army's already in action" in Waziristan, though full-scale combat does not appear to have started. Military analysts believe NATO forces in Afghanistan are likely to launch a parallel operation to cut off the militants' retreat.
The assault on Baitullah Mehsud comes after a challenger emerged from his own tribe, Qari Zainuddin, who is being secretly backed by the Pakistan state and is already believed to have weakened the fearsome warlord.
In an interview with McClatchy last week, Zainuddin said he hoped that the Mehsud tribe would rise up against Baitullah Mehsud, which could prove vital to the success of any operation.
"Baitullah Mehsud and Fazlullah (head of the Swat Taliban) should have been brought to justice long time ago," said Hassan Abbas, a research fellow at Harvard University. "Now there is public support as well as political will and army was looking for this combination to confront the militants head-on. They just can't afford to fail."
Pakistan has fought Mehsud three times since 2004 but has lost each encounter and then been forced to cut a peace deal that only emboldened the Taliban. This time, locals living in towns on the edge of Mehsud's South Waziristan lair report massive movement of military men and equipment, on a scale not seen in the past.
Pakistan is struggling to cope with the displacement of some 2 million people from the Swat operation. Waziristan, in the north west, could produce some 500,000 more refugees, according to a United Nations estimate.
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Mehsud's group claimed three major terrorist attacks last week alone: the bombing of a luxury hotel in Peshawar, a blast at a mosque in Nowshera in the northwest, and the killing of an anti-extremist religious leader in the eastern city of Lahore.
The Taliban is also likely to have carried out a bombing Sunday in a market place in Dera Ismail Khan, killing nine and injuring at least 35.
The West is likely to press Pakistan also to take on two other Taliban leaders in Waziristan, Maulvi Nazir and Gul Bahadur, who are not at war with Pakistan but send jihadists across the border to fight in Afghanistan. Analysts believe that the Pakistan army will resist, believing that Taliban that doesn't target the country remain a strategic asset for use in a proxy war with arch-enemy India. .
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