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Pakistan Taliban: US drone strikes forcing militants underground

Some Pakistan Taliban officials say leaders now meet in secret for fear of US drone strikes. But they vow to keep up their own offensive, as evidenced by a string of bomb attacks last week that killed 70 people.

By Behroz KhanCorrespondent, Staff writer / March 15, 2010

Pakistani police officers stand alert at a checkpoint in Lahore, Pakistan, Saturday, a day after Taliban suicide bombings.

K.M. Chaudary/AP

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Bajaur Agency, Pakistan; and New Delhi

Some Pakistan Taliban members in the tribal areas say the onslaught of US drone attacks and Pakistani offensives in recent months is forcing the group underground and creating fractures.

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But they threatened to maintain their own suicide and car bomb campaign – a threat borne out over the past week in a string of suicide bombs in Lahore and the northwest that killed at least 70 people.

Such attacks serve as a reminder that the Pakistani Taliban remain far from finished off despite losing territory, momentum, and top leadership over the past year.

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“Our meetings take place on a regular basis, but the leadership is underground due to security concerns…. It is not only because of drones, but the Pakistani Army, too, is targeting us,” says Taliban spokesman Tariq Azam in a phone interview from an undisclosed location.

“The Taliban will continue to strike back if the drone attacks are not stopped,” he says.

Taliban on the run

A visit over the weekend to the Bajaur tribal agency on the Afghan border appears to back up recent military announcements that the region has been cleared of militants.

Local tribesmen, with the help of Pakistani security forces, have formed lashkars, or armed posses, numbering in the hundreds. Together they have torched more than 100 homes of Taliban members and supporters and destroyed some training camps.

The operation in Bajaur follows a series of campaigns in the northwest meant to stop the Taliban’s expansion into new territories. The offensives have pushed in multiple directions, to South Waziristan at the southern end of the tribal belt and to Bajaur in the north.

Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters who escaped Bajaur have fled with their families to Charmang, in a corner of Bajaur. The retreat came at a cost: A large number of weapons, stolen vehicles, explosives, and drugs have been recovered from their houses and cave hideouts.

But still launching attacks

Despite the dramatic rollback, the group has claimed a string of suicide attacks this week in Lahore and the Swat Valley – a reminder that fighting is nowhere near over and that that the Taliban continues to maintain a presence in settled parts of Pakistan. Suicide bombers in Swat killed 13 people on Saturday and two attacks last week in Lahore killed at least 58.

"The TTP [Taliban] is definitely under pressure. It's no longer working in a very coordinated way, they are on the defensive, and the initiative has been taken away from them," says Gen. (ret.) Talat Masood, a security analyst in Islamabad. But "it may take months and years in order to eliminate what happened in Lahore in the last few weeks. It's a very long-term conflict."

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