Pakistani jets and attack helicopters struck Taliban positions in mountains close to the capital Tuesday as part of a widening offensive against militants spreading out from the lawless region along the border with Afghanistan, the military said.
With residents reporting ground troops also moving into the Buner area, the operation could allay worry in the U.S. and other Western nations that nuclear-armed Pakistan lacks the will to fight extremists in the northwest, where al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden is thought to be hiding.
The attack stands to further strain a shaky peace deal in the Malakand region, which Buner is a part of. The truce has been widely viewed in the West as a surrender to the militants and a sign Pakistan’s shaky civilian government does not recognize the threat they pose.
Pakistan has waged several offensives in the border region since the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on the U.S., resulting in the deaths of dozens of civilians and the flight of hundreds of thousands of people from their homes.
Officials have frequently claimed success from the assaults, but the ultraconservative area remains a haven for extremists who use it to stage attacks in Afghanistan, according to foreign governments.
Analysts say the 100,000-plus government soldiers in the border region have little experience in guerrilla operations, having been trained only to fight a conventional war against long-standing enemy India on the country’s eastern flank.
Heavily armed militants began moving into Buner, about 60 miles from Islamabad, this month from the nearby Swat Valley. Swat, a one-time tourist destination, has turned into a militant haven under the peace deal, which imposed Islamic law in the area in exchange for an end to hostilities.
Air and ground assaults
A military spokesman, Maj. Nasir Khan, said jets and helicopters attacked Taliban positions in mountains in the Babaji Kandao area of Buner on Tuesday afternoon. Casualty figures were not immediately known.
The military’s chief spokesman, Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, said troops were also moving into the region. He estimated the number of insurgents there at 450-500 and said the operation would be over within in a week.
Mohammad Shahid Khan, a taxi driver, said he saw tanks, heavy artillery and hundreds of soldiers heading over the Ambala pass leading to Buner.
In a sign militants were preparing to put up a fight, Taliban fighters later Tuesday took control of a police station in the town of Pir Baba, said another military official. He insisted on speaking anonymously because he was not authorized to release details to the media.
The U.S. government welcomed the offensive.
“This is something that’s in the interest of the government of Pakistan,” State Department spokesman Robert Wood said. “These Taliban and other extremists have posed an existential threat to Pakistan. They’ve also caused problems for the government of Afghanistan.”
The Taliban advance — unchecked until Tuesday by security forces — had triggered alarm in Western capitals as well as unease among some Pakistani politicians and commentators. In a remark widely reported in Pakistan, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said last week that Pakistani leaders were “basically abdicating to the Taliban and the extremists.”
On Sunday, the army launched a separate offensive in Dir, which borders Swat and is also covered by the peace deal.
Abbas said the Dir operation was now complete and had killed between 70 and 75 militants, while 10 security officers died. TV footage has shown hundreds of refugees fleeing the area, but officials have not released figures on any exodus.
Abbas dismissed fears that Islamabad could fall to the militants.
“I see this as a completely false alarm. There is no reason to worry that they pose a threat beyond that area,” he said at a media briefing in the garrison town of Rawalpindi near the capital. “I think we are 170 million people with a huge military. God willing, they (the militants) will be taken care off.”
Local officials and a Taliban spokesman said many militants had left Buner on Friday and Saturday after talks with authorities.
But Abbas played a tape purportedly featuring Swat Taliban leader Maulana Fazlullah telling his Buner commander to have his men only pack up their weapons “just to show the media” and pretend to leave the area. Abbas said it was cell phone conversation picked up by electronic surveillance.
Despite Tuesday’s offensive, questions remain about the country’s will to fight the insurgency.
Leading politicians appear split on the dangers faced by the country despite hundreds of suicide attacks in recent years. Frequently, Muslim leaders and politicians blame the militancy on the government’s close ties with Washington and direct their anger at U.S. drone attacks on militant targets in the northwest.
The Malakand deal sought to appease militants who waged a two-year campaign in Swat that saw dozens of people beheaded and girls’ schools bombed. But, as feared by many critics, the accord appeared to embolden the militants to move beyond the valley’s borders. A similar deal in the valley broke down last year.
On Tuesday, the Taliban pasted posters on walls in the main town of Mingora warning local journalists of “bad consequences” if they did not stop writing what they called pro-Western articles. They were signed by the movement’s suicide squad.