The Pakistani army has finished its offensive against the Taliban in South Waziristan, but may soon pursue militants in another part of the lawless tribal belt along the Afghan border, the prime minister said today.
Yousuf Raza Gilani's suggestion of an operation in Orakzai tribal region is another sign that Pakistan did not deal the death blow it had intended against the Taliban by taking them on in their main base.
It also illustrates the intractable nature of the extremist challenge facing this nuclear-armed nation: Even as troops flood one militant stronghold, the insurgents can regroup in another stretch of the rugged, barely governed tribal districts.
The conundrum comes amid US pressure on Pakistan to crack down on militants on its territory, although to Washington's chagrin Islamabad has focused on the groups that threaten its citizens rather US and NATO forces across the border in Afghanistan.
"The operation in South Waziristan is over. Now there are talks about Orakzai," Gilani told reporters in televised remarks from the eastern city of Lahore. He did not give a timeframe or any other details.
Pakistan's army launched a ground offensive against the Taliban in South Waziristan in mid-October, saying it was determined to terminate its No. 1 internal enemy from its most forbidding stronghold.
But the operation prompted a slew of retaliatory suicide and other bombings nationwide that have killed more than 500 people, attacks that have continued even as the military's battlefield activities have slowed down in South Waziristan.
Many of the Taliban fighters in South Waziristan are believed to have fled to North Waziristan and Orakzai. The latter has been the home base for Pakistani Taliban chief Hakimullah Mehsud.
In recent weeks, the military has launched several airstrikes against militant targets in Orakzai. Such airstrikes could be a prelude to a ground offensive, just as they were in South Waziristan.
Some 40,000 people are estimated to have fled Orakzai in the weeks since the South Waziristan offensive began, the UN said in a statement yesterday.
Spokesmen for Pakistan's powerful military did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the prime minister's statement.
In the past, the military officials have been hesitant to put a time frame on how long troops will stay in South Waziristan even after major operations end. That region also has witnessed a civilian exodus.