A militant commander who had a non-aggression pact with the Pakistan military has officially scrapped that pact, following a series of CIA drone attacks in the region including one that killed more than 65 at a funeral last week.
Hafiz Gul Bahadur's decision to attack the Pakistani military has the potential to widen the scope of a battle the army is preparing to launch against the chief of the Pakistani Taliban, threatening to stretch the Pakistan military beyond its capacity along the Afghan border.
Just two days ago men loyal to Bahadur ambushed a Pakistan military convoy, blowing up a roadside bomb then bombarding the convoy with automatic weapons and RPGs. The assault killed at least 16 soldiers, including three officers, and was one the deadliest attacks on the Pakistan military in recent memory.
Bahadur controls a large portion of North Waziristan and has tremendous influence within the tribal territory. His men are well armed and well trained in guerrilla warfare and they have in the past launched attacks against the military. But since 2007, the area has been quiet but tense after Bahadur made an unwritten non-aggression pact with the military.
The army was hoping Bahadur would stay on the sidelines while it launched an attack on Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud in neighboring South Waziristan. That will now not happen. Pakistan Military spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas threatened that the "military would respond in whatever way it feels appropriate, according to the customs of the area."
Last week's drone attack on a funeral in South Waziristan helped bring the top three Taliban commanders in the area -- Mehsud, Bahadur and Maulvi Nazeer -- closer. According to local residents, the three have forged an understanding to fight the Pakistan army's ground offensive together. The army had been hoping to exploit differences between the groups, therefore isolating Mehsud and keeping the scope of the operation relatively limited.
The three Taliban commanders have the same ideology but have been fighting their own fights. U.S. officials believe Nazeer and Bahadur and more dangerous to United States troops in Afghanistan than is Mehsud.
But the CIA drone attacks have helped the three come together, according to the local residents. Fighters loyal to all three commanders have launched rocket attacks on military bases and check points since last week's funeral attack, forcing the Pakistan military to rethink who it can trust.
"There is no operation which was either planned or being conducted in North Waziristan," Abbas told a press conference yesterday. "This attack was completely unprovoked."
The CIA has focused more of its drone attacks on Mehsud in the last few months, and the funeral attack just missed him, according to an intelligence agent and locals in the area. But while the U.S. believes the strikes have limited al Qaeda and Taliban commanders' abilities to launch and organize cross-border attacks, Abbas argued yesterday that they do "more harm than good," especially if they have helped unite the Taliban commanders.
Pakistan's military still has more than 20,000 soldiers fighting an unfinished war in Swat, northeast of the tribal areas and away from the Afghanistan border. Pakistan's information minister, Qamar Zaman Kaira, said Monday that the battle was "in its final stages," but that is a claim that has been made in the past.
U.S. officials have recently praised Pakistan military's actions against the Taliban in Swat. But the fight in Waziristan will be much more difficult.
The Pakistani air force is bombing multiple targets associated with Mehsud in Waziristan every day, hoping to soften the targets before a full-scale ground offensive. Pakistan describes Mehsud as enemy number one, charging him with killing the female leader of a Muslim country, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, and countless other terrorist attacks on security forces.
Military officials tell ABC News they are "already in the process of putting assets in place for the ground offensive," but refuse to give a time frame for the ground assault. Bahadar's attack might force the army to move up its plans for South Waziristan, if it also needs to worry about North Waziristan.
The army has launched operations in North and South Waziristan in the past, but has always left the battle unfinished, signing peace agreements with militant commanders. But the current battles against the Taliban have never been more popular among the Pakistani population, most of whom are calling for the elimination once and for all of militants operating inside the country's borders.