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Page last updated at 15:13 GMT, Tuesday, 31 March 2009 16:13 UK

Centre-stage in the 'war on terror'

By Syed Shoaib Hasan
BBC News, Islamabad

Pakistan Taleban leader Baitullah Mehsud
We will continue our attacks until the Pakistan government stops supporting the Americans
Pakistan Taleban chief Baitullah Mehsud

The admission by the chief of the Pakistani Taleban, Baitullah Mehsud, that his group was behind Monday's attack on a police academy in Lahore comes as little surprise.

Analysts and officials said in the immediate aftermath of the attack that the most likely connection was with Mr Mehsud's Tehrik-e-Taleban (TeT) organisation.

What has caught many off guard is how quickly and openly Mr Mehsud accepted responsibility.

Previously he and his organisation would either refrain from accepting responsibility for major attacks, or wait several months before acknowledging their role.

'Not surprised'

It is another indication of how much the power of the Taleban has grown and how secure they feel in their safe havens along the border with Afghanistan.

In particular, the Waziristan tribal region - part of which is controlled by Mr Mehsud - stands out as the place which currently harbours some of the most wanted men in the world.

For Pakistani security forces and the US, it has increasingly become centre stage in what was once called "the war on terror".

Site of a drone strike in north-west Pakistan
Drone strikes are not thought to have killed any high-profile targets

Everybody from Osama bin Laden to the trans-Atlantic bombing suspect, Rashid Rauf, has at one time or another said to have been based in this territory.

Having visited Waziristan several times during the past two years, I am not surprised it has this reputation.

If there is a place in the world which can continue to provide shelter for al-Qaeda, this is it.

It is a land of steep mountains and narrow valleys populated by tribesmen proud of their long history of "dying gloriously" in battle.

Vanguard

On my first trip to the area, one of the first landmarks pointed out to me was the site of an ambush over half a century earlier when Mehsud tribesmen surrounded and annihilated a 300-member British force in the last days of the Raj.

map

During the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Waziristan remained the vanguard of the struggle.

The first of the Afghan cities to be lost by the Soviets was to a commander from this region, when Khost fell to the now legendary Jalaluddin Haqqani.

It is his son Sirajuddin who now heads the Afghan Taleban's command in this region and the adjoining provinces of Afghanistan.

He was recently declared wanted by the US with a reward of $5m for his capture.

But the most famous and notorious of the Taleban warlords remains Baitullah Mehsud.

He and his TeT organisation are responsible for much of the spread of Taleban ideology across Pakistan.

Intelligence officials confirm that it was the help and training of TeT which enabled the Swat Taleban to demand and achieve a separate legal system in that Pakistani district.

They also say that his support was crucial to the Taleban in nearby Bajaur, enabling them to reach a peace deal with the army despite the military having much of the upper hand.

The TeT is also said to maintain networks as far afield as the southern port city of Karachi. Increasingly, it has grown as a clear and present danger to the state of Pakistan.

Anti-American sentiments

But while the country's security forces have been able to thwart Mr Mehsud's plans outside the tribal areas, it has been almost impossible to curtail his activities - and those of other Taleban leaders - in Waziristan.

In a series of tactical campaigns, starting in 2004, the Taleban have all but pushed the security forces out of Waziristan. The few that remain are confined to their forts.

Over the last year, the only thing that has penetrated the Waziristan tribal region are suspected US drones. These have killed hundreds of people, many of them militants, but also many civilians.

MAJOR PAKISTAN ATTACKS
27 March 2009: Suicide bomber demolishes crowded mosque near the north-western town of Jamrud, killing dozens
3 March 2009: Six policemen and a driver killed, and several cricketers injured, in ambush on the Sri Lanka cricket team in Lahore
20 Sept 2008: 54 die in attack on the Marriott hotel in Islamabad
6 Sept 2008: Suicide car bombing kills 35 and wounds 80 at a police checkpoint in Peshawar
Aug 2008: Twin suicide bombings at gates of a weapons factory in town of Wah kill 67
March 2008: Suicide bombs hit police headquarters and suburban house in Lahore, killing 24

That has angered ordinary Pakistanis and raised anti-American sentiments to an all-time high. Pakistan's security forces say the drone strikes also prevent them from acting more strongly against the militants.

But the army's record in Waziristan's suggest their inaction is mostly because of the activities of the militants rather than the pressure of public opinion.

In addition, the drone strikes are only successful to a limited extent. Being highly dependent on ground-based intelligence, they are not believed to have destroyed many "high value" targets.

Given the fact that the Taleban behead at least a couple of people for spying everyday, the continuing limited availability of spies is understandable.

In fact, other than killing a lot of junior and mid-level al-Qaeda and Taleban personnel, the attacks have united all Taleban factions in Pakistan.

In a recent declaration, Pakistan's other two Taleban factions - led by Maulvi Nazir and Hafiz Gul Bahadur - said they had formed an alliance with Mr Mehsud.

The two belong to the Wazir tribe, the Mehsud's traditional enemy.

The Wazir is the larger tribe and exists on both sides of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. They are believed to harbour most of the senior al-Qaeda leadership, including Osama Bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri.

The harsh realities on the ground have made some analysts adamant that Pakistani and US authorities have little choice except direct military action in Waziristan.

"This would mean bloody and entrenched fighting with serious losses against a battle-hardened enemy," says an ex-army official familiar with the region.

Whether both sides are willing to take this on, in the face of declining public support for the conflict and its casualties, remains one of the great unanswered questions in this increasingly bloody war.



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