.....................................A shy Baitullah Mahsud.......................
Is the Pakistan Army going to press ahead with a major offensive in South Waziristan aimed at breaking the power of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan leader Baitullah Mahsud? Don't hold your breath.
After trumpeting the achievements of Operation Rah-e-Rast (Straight Path) in the Swat Valley and other districts in Malakand, the Army announced in mid-June it was launching its new offensive, called Path of Salvation (Rah-e-Najat), aimed at breaking Mahsud's power in his tribal homeland.
But unlike Swat, where the Taliban has little local support or depth, Mahsud has a formidable military presence in South Waziristan, with around 10,000 fighters, including many Arabs, Uzbeks, Chechens and other foreigners. Elements of al-Qaeda's leadership are also based in the area.
At first it looked as though the new offensive was progressing well. There was the formation of an anti-Mahsud alliance of the TTP leader's old foes - the Bhittani tribe, Waziristan Baba, and the quickly-murdered Qari Zainuddin, amongst others. The Americans and the Pakistani airforce appeared to be coordinating their air attacks for once and the Pakistani Army was soon shelling suspected 'hideouts' and cutting off roads of escape. Baitullah already had a $5 million bounty on his head from the Americans and a further $615,000 from the Pakistan government, as a result of his murderous campaign of suicide bombings.
But all this is to misunderstand the nature of the relationship between the TTP leaders and the Pakistani military and (more importantly) the ISI intelligence service. It was the ISI that encouraged the Taliban from Afghanistan to settle in Waziristan after the fall of their regime in Kabul and which has built up Baitullah into the figurehead he has since become. The formation of the TTP itself two years ago could not have taken place without ISI approval.
Baitullah Mahsud's mistake has been to operate and interfere too much in the internal politics of Pakistan, to the detriment of the military's campaign in Afghanistan, where Pakistan wishes to exert much more influence. In Swat the TTP lost all sense of perspective and thought they could do as they wished, even though there is no desire in the wider parts of the country for the extremist Wahhabism they profess and which is itself in stark contrast to the traditional ideals of Pakhtunwali.
So now we are hearing that the Army has 'temporarily' shelved its plans to push into militant havens in Waziristan, amid reports of secret talks between Mahsud and the Pakistani army. And elders from the Mahsud tribe have told the Taliban chief that the fight against the Pakistani army is "spoiling their plan" and that the only beneficiaries from the violence are the US-led troops stationed in neighbouring Afghanistan. In other words, they would prefer to concentrate on fighting in Afghanistan, rather than wasting their time in Pakistan.
A deal is already being talked about: Mahsud will be required to end suicide and other attacks against civil, military and foreign targets inside Pakistan and in return the army will delay the launch of attacks against him and his followers. Note that there is not a word about Afghanistan in all this.
Such a deal is not without precedent. Don't forget that the problems in Swat started with a similar deal and there have been similar agreements with Baitullah before, most recently in 2007.
If true, this deal will certainly lead to tensions with the Americans, who desperately want Mahsud neutralised. However, the Pakistanis will say that they are over-stretched in Swat, where hostilities continue and where soldiers will have to stay for months or years to help two million people uprooted by the conflict return to their homes and businesses.
And it is doubtful that anything short of a full military offensive could displace the militants from the harsh landscape - ideal for ambush - of south Waziristan anyway. If Mahsud is finally killed it will not be by the Pakistan Army, but either by a US drone missile strike or an assassin's bullet from one of his many tribal enemies.