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Eight troops killed as militants attack Pakistan army checkpoint

An attack by militants on a checkpoint in a lawless tribal area near the Afghan border early Thursday underscores how overstretched the Pakistani military is and why it is resisting U.S. pressure to conduct a massive offensive in North Waziristan, analysts said Thursday.

About 100 insurgents stormed the checkpoint in the environs of Marobi village in South Waziristan with rockets and machine guns, sparking a three-hour gunfight that killed eight soldiers and wounded 12 others.

Local officials said 10 militants were also killed and five wounded in the battle, figures disputed by a spokesman for the outlawed Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan group who said none of its fighters were killed and that two had received bullet wounds.

U.S. officials have been pressing the Pakistanis to launch an offensive against militants in North Waziristan, many of whom use the region as a refuge from which to attack U.S., allied and Afghan forces in neighboring Afghanistan.

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However, analysts said the Pakistan army is simply too stretched to mount a major offensive. There are an estimated 20,000 to 25,000 militants in North Waziristan, said Javed Hussain, a security analyst, formerly a brigadier and special forces commander. And standard counter-insurgency theory recommends as many as 25 infantrymen for every militant.

Even following a 10-to-1 ratio, analysts said, the Pakistani military would have to field 200,000 infantry troops for a North Waziristan offensive, requiring it to pull forces out of other troubled tribal areas and even the tense border with India. This would not only expose army supply lines, they argued, it also would jeopardize the security of citizens in other areas.

If anything, a North Waziristan operation would require a higher infantrymen-to-militant ratio given the rugged terrain, they added, and ideally more helicopters than Pakistan has.

“The militants are playing hide and seek with the army,” Hussain said. “And once you’re in there, it would be a war without end.”

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Furthermore, others added, Pakistan needs to distinguish between its national interest and that of the Americans, said Zafar Hilaly, a former Pakistani ambassador. Pakistan has enough trouble fighting the Taliban in its heartland without attacking militants on the porous border fighting U.S. troops in Afghanistan, he added.

“We’re up to our gills fighting the Pakistani Taliban,” Hilaly said. “They’ve not as yet joined hands, especially with the Haqqani network [targeting U.S. troops]. If we take them on, there’s a risk the two will join up and it will become a generational battle. This is not the right time, just because the U.S. is troubled about its soldiers.”

Some U.S. critics argue, however, that making distinctions between “good” and “bad,” “our” and “their” Taliban only fuels more militancy in Pakistan, which has already lost tens of thousands of lives.

The tactics used in Thursday’s early-morning attack on the South Waziristan military checkpoint are part of a longstanding bid by militants to demoralize the Pakistani army by attacking its strongholds, sending the message that the militants are invincible and can reach soldiers even within their most well-defended bases

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“It’s about hearts and minds,” said Hussain. “Once the mind starts to doubt, the war is lost.”

There has been a significant increase in violence in the area of the assault since Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was killed May 2 by U.S. forces.

On Wednesday, an attack by a U.S. unmanned aircraft, or drone, killed 23 suspected militants in North Waziristan, two days after U.S. missiles killed 19 suspected militants in South Waziristan. And a top Al Qaeda figure, Ilyas Kashmiri, was reportedly killed in another drone attack late last Friday in South Waziristan.

The stepped-up U.S. drone attacks — coming despite the political fallout in Pakistan, which publicly complains that they are a violation of its sovereignty — is designed to intensify pressure on Islamabad to go ahead with the North Waziristan strike, some analysts said. But Washington must understand, they added, that even as drone attacks kill militants, they create more by radicalizing young men.

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Also on Thursday, at least four people were killed and three injured when a roadside bomb exploded at Matni Bazaar in the suburbs of the northwestern city of Peshawar, police and hospital officials said.

Peshawar police operations supervisor Ijaz Khan told reporters that the device was planted in a garbage dump and detonated by remote control. The attack seemed to be aimed at local residents who recently started supporting law enforcement agencies, angering the militants, Khan added.

mark.magnier@latimes.com

Special correspondent Zulfiqar Ali in Peshawar contributed to this report.

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