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Pakistan Army's challenge: holding onto gains against militants

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Brigadier Shah cites a peace deal struck in the aftermath of the first major-scale operation in February 2005.

"We had Baitullah on the ropes," he says, adding that Mr. Mehsud, at the time, was forced to seek refuge in North Waziristan. But fighting stopped, and Mehsud negotiated a fresh peace deal – which, because it was negotiated with militants, as opposed to the entire tribe, quickly fell apart.

Former military ruler Gen. Pervez Musharraf was unpopular for conducting these operations and was "constantly struggling to legitimize his rule," adds Shah.

The military next attempted to venture into the area in February 2008, when 350 Pakistani troops were forced to abandon the Ladha Fort in the militant stronghold of Makeen, in South Waziristan. That operation was also called off.

But now, a growing familiarity with the territory, which the Army had never entered prior to 2002, as well as experience gained from previous operational errors, should help, says Gen. Athar Abbas, an Army spokesperson.

And, because of the Army's gains against the Taliban in the recent offensive in Swat Valley, Mehsud's militias are now increasingly hemmed in. Recent media reports have suggested that Mehsud's men are falling back to their home turf.

"Swat, Bajaur, and Mohmand are under attack. He knows he is going to be the next target – it's only a question of when," says Ismail Khan, Peshawar bureau chief of Dawn, a leading English daily.

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