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Last Updated: Thursday, 24 January 2008, 13:48 GMT
Why Waziristan matters
By Jill McGivering
BBC News

The Pakistani army says it has cleared militant strongholds in three areas of the tribal region of South Waziristan near the Afghan border.

Pakistani soldier in South Waziristan
Control of Waziristan is key to attempts to control Afghanistan

The military said troops, backed by artillery and helicopters, killed 40 militants and captured another 30.

It is not possible to verify the reports independently. But it is the latest sign that violence in the area is intensifying.

The battle for control in South Waziristan is critical. It is described as one of the most important frontlines in the fight against Islamic extremism, a new proxy war.

It has implications both for the stability of President Musharraf's government and for the struggle for dominance in Afghanistan.

Urged by the United States, which is increasingly alarmed by the situation, the Pakistani authorities are expanding their military forces there.

But any gains on the ground will be hard won.

Militants in the area are drawn from a cluster of local tribes and embedded in local communities.

Control is key

They come under the loose overall command of Baitullah Mehsud - a young but powerful leader.

He is thought to have close links to Taleban leaders - sharing a common ideology and years of practical support - and indirect links with groups loyal to al-Qaeda too.

Waziristan was seen as a key place of refuge for many Taleban fighters, displaced from Afghanistan. There is still regular cross-border exchange of people, skills and weapons.

So control of Waziristan is key to attempts to control Afghanistan.

In the past, the Pakistan government cut deals with these tribal militants. But many now say that just gave the militants time to gain strength.

The current military campaign though is proving very high risk. Pakistan's army is struggling with low morale. Many are dispirited by the loss of life - and the constant threat of ambush, kidnap and suicide attacks.

Their disillusionment is dangerous for President Musharraf - who needs the army's support.

A rising number of suicide attacks elsewhere in Pakistan - generally blamed on pro-Taleban militants - is also undermining public confidence in President Musharraf's handling of the crisis.



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