The Pakistani army’s push against Taliban and al-Qaeda militants in the Mehsud tribal stronghold of South Waziristan has one paramount objective - to destroy the source of militant attacks in the country.
The ground offensive that it launched in the region on Saturday is viewed by analysts as its most serious attempt so far to liquidate the militant network there.
This conclusion is based on the tactics the army has adopted so far. Unlike previous operations which were invariably half-hearted, haphazard and abortive, it took its time to plan a thorough operation this time.
The ground offensive comes after a four-month siege of Mehsud lands, during which the civilian population was encouraged to leave the area and the mobility of the militants was restricted.
The army also used this time to persuade militant networks in the adjoining Wazir tribal areas of North and South Waziristan to stay out of the conflict.
The army has now started to advance on two axis points from the south-east and south-west with a view to herd the militants into their Makin-Ladha stronghold for a final battle.
At the same time, the army is trying to isolate hardcore militants from the larger body of insurgents and thereby reduce the leadership of the resistance to a bare minimum.
A policy statement of the army says the prime target of the operation would be the ethnic Uzbek militants from Central Asia, followed by foreign fighters from regions like the Middle East and North Africa.
The elimination of local fighters who refuse to lay down arms has been set as the army’s last priority.
At a news briefing on Monday, the army’s chief spokesman said there were between 8,000 to 10,000 fighters in the area, out of whom around 1,000 were foreigners.
He further said that not all Mehsud fighters were equally motivated, as many had joined the militants’ ranks under duress or due to outright intimidation.
The message is obviously designed to encourage the “soft” fighters to desert their positions.
The hardcore militants are left with two options. They can either fight to the bitter end, or they can slip out of the area to fight another day.
For the moment, they have set up entrenched positions along both lines of the army’s advance.
Analysts expect the fighting to be fierce, but few believe the militants will hold out for long against a superior ground force and precision bombing from the air.
The general view is that they will ultimately abandon their positions and resort to guerrilla attacks, as the militants in Swat have done.
But unlike Swat and other parts of Malakand, the militants in South Waziristan will have to battle in a more inhospitable terrain, devoid of water and forest cover.
A large number of them, including the foreigners, are likely to slip out of the area.
The easiest route for them would be to head south across the Gomal pass and disappear into the vast wastelands of Balochistan.
Others could slip past the adjacent areas of Lakki and Bannu to end up at Mir Ali, where Arab fighters have long kept a base, or further north into Orakzai region where the Mehsud militants have their own bases.
Some Western observers even fear that al-Qaeda’s trained bomb-makers in the area may end up in the worldwide sleeper cells of militants and enhance their ability to carry out militant attacks in the West.
For the Pakistani army, a success in South Waziristan would almost certainly create the need for a quick follow-up operation in the Orakzai-Darra Adamkhel region to prevent reprisal attacks on Peshawar, the capital of North West Frontier Province.
It is still not clear how the government plans to handle the militants that slip into Balochistan.
It is also not clear what it intends to do with the North Waziristan-based Haqqani network and its affiliated groups in the region.
Defence analysts in Pakistan have long seen the Hafiz Gul Bahadur group in North Waziristan, the Mullah Nazir group in the Wazir area of South Waziristan and the Baitullah (now Hakimullah) group in the Mehsud area of South Waziristan as offshoots of the al-Qaeda affiliated Haqqani network.
The present operation is confined to the Mehsud area, which is less than one-quarter of the wider Waziristan region and is tucked further away from the border with Afghanistan.
The role of the Mehsud fighters in Afghanistan has been marginal - they have exclusively focused on raids and bomb attacks in Pakistani territory.
By comparison, the other groups of Haqqani network have signed more or less enduring peace deals with the Pakistani army and are heavily involved in operations inside Afghanistan.
There is an understanding here that these groups have agreed not to interfere in the army’s campaign against the Mehsud Taliban.
But what is the quid pro quo and are the Americans on board?
Apparently, the question of the Haqqani network’s future is more important for the Americans and Nato forces in Afghanistan than the fate of Mehsud fighters.