Pakistan's military offensive against the Taliban has slowed the flow of arms and fighters into Afghanistan, U.S. officials say, and has prompted intelligence analysts to issue cautiously upbeat new assessments of Islamabad's ability to contain the threat of violent extremists.
U.S. intelligence and military officials said the revised outlook reflected a series of developments over the last few months, including not only the Pakistani military campaign in the country's Swat Valley, but shifting political currents that have prompted many Pakistanis to turn against extremist groups and back their government's anti-insurgency efforts.
"All of a sudden military operations [against militants] are being imbued with a kind of legitimacy, popular support and political support they have never had before," said a senior U.S. intelligence official who oversees analysis of the region, describing the evolving view on condition of anonymity.
Obama administration officials were warning only weeks ago that Pakistan's fragile government could succumb to a militant offensive that had drawn nearer to Islamabad, the capital, but the developments have changed the U.S. view.
The senior U.S. intelligence official described it as a "critical change" in a nation where the government has for years been reluctant to take on militants for fear of being accused of turning the Pakistani military against its own people and doing the bidding of the United States.
At the same time, U.S. military officials said this week that Pakistan's operations in Swat and South Waziristan were already having a measurable effect on the amount of equipment and violence spilling over the border into Afghanistan.
"There's a definite impact, and I think it almost can't be overstated," said Col. John Spiszer, who is the commander of the 3rd Brigade Combat Team of the 1st Infantry Division, a unit responsible for security operations in northeastern Afghanistan along the Pakistani border.
Spiszer said Taliban elements appeared to have concluded that they could no longer afford to send as many fighters or weapons into Afghanistan because they may be needed to fight the Pakistani army in tribal regions that the militants have used as safe havens since the Sept. 11 attacks.
Among militant groups along the border in Afghanistan, "weapons are drying up. Money is drying up," Spiszer said via a satellite interview with Pentagon reporters. "There's only so many resources to go around. . . . If they're having to use them to fight against the Pakistan military and the [paramilitary] Frontier Corps, they certainly aren't of use here."
The relatively optimistic assessment comes as the Obama administration is deploying an additional 21,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan in hopes of reversing what had been an increasingly costly campaign in terms of U.S. and allied troops' lives.
Last year was the deadliest of the war for the coalition, with 294 troops killed, and 153 more deaths this year, according to the independent website icasualties.org. June has brought no relief to that trend, with 35 killed so far -- the highest monthly toll of 2009.
Pakistani forces launched their campaign in Swat two months ago, after militants had moved to within 60 miles of the capital. The operation has maintained broad support among citizens, even though about 1.7 million people were driven from their homes to refugee camps by the fighting. Analysts, however, have cautioned that enthusiasm for the campaign could wane if the displaced are not soon returned to their homes.
More recently, the Pakistani military has begun carrying out smaller military operations in South Waziristan, along the mountainous border with Afghanistan, setting the stage for a potential assault on Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mahsud. Pakistani officials have blamed the Taliban leader for a string of deadly bombings as well as the 2007 assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. He has denied involvement in her killing.
A senior Pakistani government official, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said that the military had begun "commando-type, special forces operations" aimed at Mahsud, and was seeking to strengthen the militant's rivals. "We're going to launch an operation," the Pakistani official said. "We would first like to consolidate our gains in Swat and then open a new front."
A CIA drone fired on a funeral service for a former Mahsud lieutenant this week, killing about 65 people. The strike was seen as an indication of expanding cooperation between the CIA and Pakistan in the hunt for the militant leader, who Pakistani officials say had been present at the funeral earlier but escaped the attack.
Pakistan's operations, combined with Predator drone strikes, have elevated pressure on Al Qaeda. The U.S. intelligence official said some members of the terrorist network may have fled to Yemen or other countries. "I'm sure they're looking at the real estate section in international newspapers," the official said.
Still, U.S. officials said that Pakistan's military efforts have been focused on internal threats and that the nation has yet to show similar resolve against targets that are of primary interest to the United States. Among them is Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Afghan Taliban leader whose government in Kabul was ousted by the U.S.-led invasion in 2001. He is believed to be based in the Pakistani city of Quetta.
"I don't think Pakistan wants the Taliban to defeat the United States in Afghanistan, but it's not their No. 1 concern," the U.S. intelligence official said.