Panetta: Pakistan military plans to open new front
WASHINGTON (AP) -- Pakistan has indicated that it plans to launch combat operations against Taliban militants soon in a tribal area near the Afghan border that also serves as a haven for leaders of the al-Qaida-affiliated Haqqani network, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Monday.
Speaking to The Associated Press in his Pentagon office, Panetta said Pakistan's military chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, discussed the planned operation in recent conversations with the top American commander in Afghanistan, Gen. John Allen.
Panetta said he did not know when the Pakistani operation would start, but he said he understands it will be in the "near future," and that the main target will be the Pakistani Taliban, rather than the Haqqani network.
Saying he had previously "lost hope" that Pakistan's military would take action in the North Waziristan tribal area, Panetta welcomed Kayani's initiative, even though the main target may not be the Haqqani leadership.
The U.S. long has been frustrated by Islamabad's refusal to target Afghan Taliban militants and their allies using Pakistani territory to stage attacks against U.S. and coalition troops in Afghanistan. Many analysts believe Pakistan is reluctant to target groups with which it has strong historical ties and could be useful allies in Afghanistan after foreign forces withdraw.
The Pentagon chief said relations with the Pakistani military have improved "a great deal" lately, after a falling out over American airstrikes that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers in November and Pakistan's subsequent closing of border crossings that facilitated the flow of military supplies to U.S. and coalition troops in Afghanistan.
He said Allen and Kayani have "discussed concerns" about the Haqqanis, whose fighters have moved back and forth across the border to launch attacks in Afghanistan.
"Gen. Kayani did indicate that they had developed plans to go into Waziristan," Panetta said. "Our understanding is that hopefully they're going to take that step in the near future. I can't tell you when. But the indication that we have is that they are prepared to conduct that operation soon."
He added: "They've talked about it for a long time. Frankly, I'd lost hope that they were going do anything about it. But it does appear that they in fact are going to take that step."
Pakistan has denied this, saying its forces are stretched too thin fighting Pakistani Taliban militants at war with the state. It also has criticized NATO and Afghan forces for not doing enough to stop Pakistani militants holed up in Afghanistan from launching attacks across the border into Pakistan.
Haqqani leaders fled to Pakistan's North Waziristan region from their homeland in eastern Afghanistan following the U.S.-led invasion in 2001.
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)