WASHINGTON – Pakistan has told U.S. military officials 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.
Panetta welcomed Kayani’s initiative, even though the main target may not be the Haqqani leadership.
“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.”
Panetta also revealed that the U.S. is providing additional military assistance to peacekeeping forces in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula in order to strengthen security in the region. But he said that so far the Pentagon has not moved to send additional U.S. troops to the Sinai. A truck-mounted tracking system sent to the Sinai will allow troops to follow friendly forces.
“We just want to make sure that we know how those forces are deployed in order to ensure that we can more effectively go after those terrorists that would try to create an incident or terrorist act,” Panetta said.
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.
Touching on another major U.S. frustration in Afghanistan, Panetta said he saw the accelerating pattern of attacks on American and other coalition troops by members of the Afghan army and police as a sign that the Taliban is grasping for success. But he also said he has been assured by U.S. military commanders that “this still remains sporadic” and not a long-term trend.
“But, having said that, we are keeping a very close watch on the situation,” Panetta added.