Islamabad: Pakistan may be buoyed by a push against the Taliban in Swat, but a warning has been sounded that the Islamist threat cannot be quashed without a determined assault against militants entrenched in the tribal belt.
Three suicide car bombings that left 28 people dead in the northwest in the past week show a new Taliban leadership willing and able to inflict carnage, while key militant chiefs remain at large despite multiple offensives.
"The Taliban remain a dangerous force, capable of causing a great deal of damage," a recent editorial in English-language paper The News said.
"The war begun against them must continue. There can be no let up... there will have to be a campaign in Waziristan," it added, referring to the wild semi-autonomous region where Islamist rebels hold sway.
For years Pakistan`s military has oscillated between launching offensives against Islamist insurgents and signing peace deals with the rebel leadership holed up in the lawless tribal belt that borders Afghanistan.
But the march of militants across the one-time tourist playground of Swat and neighbouring districts, advancing to within 100 kilometres of Islamabad in April this year, sparked a fierce air and ground onslaught.
With more than 2,140 militants reported killed, the government in early July said the verdant valley was almost cleared of the Taliban threat.
Next in the military`s sights was the tribal region of Khyber, the fabled land route into Afghanistan and the main supply line for the more than 100,000 US and NATO troops fighting in Pakistan`s war-stricken neighbour.
Helicopter gunships and paramilitaries thrust into Khyber on September 01, targeting Lashkar-e-Islam (Army of Islam), a home-grown militia led by former bus driver Mangal Bagh, which has loose links to the Taliban.
Military spokesman Major General Athar Abbas said the operation was essential as militants fleeing other offensives in Swat and nearby districts "were coming and taking refuge in this agency”.
Analysts and local residents, however, question how successful the Khyber operation has been when no high-profile targets have been captured or killed.
"Everybody knows where Mangal Bagh is living -- why don`t they go after him and target him?" Khyber resident Jamil Afridi said.
Now the Army claims to be mopping up there and looming on the horizon is the prize of North and South Waziristan – the main bastions of the Taliban leadership, and also a hideout and training ground for al Qaeda fighters.
"In the case of Khyber, the army thinks they succeeded easily. However, in areas like South Waziristan, their strategy is different," experts said.
"They don`t want to get in there until they are very sure of a walk-over".
The timing of any Waziristan offensive remains a mystery. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is scheduled to visit Pakistan in mid to late October, a possible catalyst for Pakistan keen to impress its Western ally. The military has already launched sporadic air assaults in the area and blockaded roads, and Abbas said they are keen to exploit infighting after Taliban warlord Baitullah Mehsud was killed in a US missile strike in August.
"If its weakening your adversary then the better strategy is first to allow that weakness to be fully settled there... so it will be a matter for military judgement what is the right time for the ground offensive," said Abbas.
The big question is whether the military has the manpower to push into Waziristan while sustaining a presence in Swat, where the Army has vowed to stay until April 2010.
A September report by Washington-based think-tank the New America Foundation said that between 370,000 and 430,000 more troops would be needed in the tribal and northwest region to meet the insurgent threat.
Currently, 150,000 of the 600,000-strong armed forces are in the area. Traditionally, Pakistan has focused its military might toward arch rival India, and troops are still packed along the border.
While Pakistan still views India as its main threat, the report said, the military "will probably take a default position on the tribal areas, clearing out extremist elements of the Taliban using current tactics while seeking to cut deals with more moderate elements."