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U.S. envoy expects Pakistan military to move against militant havens, but understands limitations

ISLAMABAD: The United States ambassador to Pakistan on Friday said Washington understands that Pakistan’s military is too stretched to invade North Waziristan at the moment, but is confident the operation eventually will happen. Ambassador Cameron Munter emphasized in a press conference at the U.S. embassy that Pakistan’s tackling of the militant sanctuaries on the Pakistan side of the border — considered crucial for stabilizing Afghanistan — is a matter of capacity and not of will.

“I think there is, yes, a great amount of capacity being used in holding the ground that the Pakistani army has won at great cost over the last say 20 months. And in that sense I think it would be incorrect to define the question about North Waziristan as a question simply of will, rather than of capacity. I think it’s wrong,”

Munter said when asked whether the United States believes the Pakistanis are sincere about going after the safe havens used by Pakistani and Afghan Taliban militants. Munter spoke a day after the White House unveiled a review of President Barack Obama’s year-old strategy to pour an additional 30,000 U.S. troops into Afghanistan in an effort to counter Taliban momentum and allow for a gradual decrease of combat troops starting mid-2011.

A five-page unclassified summary of the review said foreign forces had made “notable operational gains” in Afghanistan, but reported uneven progress in Pakistan, whose border areas are widely seen as the main obstacle to Obama’s strategy succeeding because of the free flow of militants into Afghanistan.

Pakistan has about 140,000 troops on its western border with Afghanistan involved in several operations against Pakistani militants bent on overthrowing the government in Islamabad. But Pakistan has been reluctant to go into North Waziristan, often called the epicenter of global jihadism, because it says it needs to consolidate gains made elsewhere before it can tackle the rugged territory.

“When we hear the government – the Pakistani military – say its not a question of whether but when, we are encouraged. We would like it to be soon, because we would like to see these people as a common enemy but we understand that the decision has to be made by the leadership of the Pakistan military,” Munter said.

“And I think you’ll find that even though this sounds like a contradiction, it’s not. We would like them to move tomorrow, we would like them to take out these people tomorrow, but you know we understand they are telling us honestly about the capacity of their military. And when they are able, we are convinced they will move in,” he said.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said on December 16 that Pakistan needs to do more to control the flow of extremists along its porous border with Afghanistan. Pakistan says it will invade North Waziristan, but on its own schedule.

But Pakistan is also hesitant to go into North Waziristan because it is home to the Haqqani network, a long-time insurgent faction allied with the Afghan Taliban that is thought by security analysts to be one of Pakistan’s more powerful assets in Afghanistan.

Pakistan has long demanded a say in any peace settlement in Afghanistan, and groups such as the Haqqani network insure that it can influence any future settlement and check rival India’s advances in Kabul.

On one hand, officials in Washington say Pakistan has to do more to go after groups such as the Haqqanis. On the other, Munter and other officials are publicly reticent to press too much because Pakistan could make life difficult for NATO, as it did in October when it closed down a vital supply route for 10 days because of a coalition helicopter incursion that killed two Pakistani troops.

North Waziristan is about one-fourth the size of Wales and is thought to be a base for some members of the Afghan insurgency and al-Qaeda. Munter’s comments reflect the complicated mix of allies and enemies confronting the United States and NATO as they seek to exit Afghanistan.Reuters

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Mubashar Nizam

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