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Pakistan's fresh resolve in latest battle against Taliban

The Army has a mandate to continue its offensive in the Bajaur tribal area until it's won.

By Shahan MuftiCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / October 6, 2008

Digging in: Pakistani troops on patrol in Bajaur amid a two-month-old fight against militants there.

Aamir Qureshi/AP

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Islamabad, Pakistan

For Pakistan, moments of success have been few in the fight in its northwestern tribal area against members of the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

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But with militants there carrying out increasingly brazen attacks in Pakistan's cities, and stirring trouble in Afghanistan – prompting the United States to pressure Pakistan to act – Pakistan appears to be taking its home-grown terrorist threat more seriously.

There is cautious hope among military planners and observers here that the current military offensive in Bajaur – one of seven districts in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas – will be a much-needed turning point in Pakistan's war against domestic militancy.

In previous FATA offensives, the Army has stopped partway through and signed truces that ultimately allowed militants to regroup.

This time the Army has orders to fight until they control the area, says Ikram Sehgal, the publisher of Defence Journal who served in FATA as an Army major. "They're operating with a clear mandate now, which makes all the difference," he says.

The number of troops fighting in Bajaur is comparable to that of earlier offensives, Mr. Sehgal continues, adding that "this number is just about right."

"There hasn't been a clear victory in the military sense" in Pakistan's fight against militants in FATA, says Talat Masood, a security analyst and a former general in the Pakistan Army. "This time," he says, the Army "wants it to be different."

By the Pakistan military's own estimates the most recent tribal offensive has left at least a thousand Taliban and Al Qaeda militants dead. The blow to militants has caused civilian casualties to mount, and at least 450,000 refugees have fled Bajaur into neighboring areas of Pakistan and into Kunar Province, in eastern Afghanistan. The Red Cross and the United Nations have declared that they now consider this region of Pakistan a full-fledged war zone.

A clear victory in Bajaur would not only mean a shift in a negative trend in Pakistan's fight against militancy. It would also give the Pakistani government and Army control of a geographically strategic region of the fiercely independent and troubled tribal areas.

Bajaur is the northernmost agency in Pakistan's autonomous tribal areas. The smallest of the tribal agencies, it is the most densely populated with 800,000 residents. It shares a boundary with the northeastern Afghan provinces of Kunar, Nooristan, and Nangarhar, which are the most troubled regions of the war-ravaged country and are considered strongholds of Al Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban.

After eight weeks of fighting, the Pakistani Army now controls anywhere between 30 and 60 percent of Bajaur agency, according to independent defense analysts in Pakistan.