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.

Aamir Qureshi/AP
Digging in: Pakistani troops on patrol in Bajaur amid a two-month-old fight against militants there.
Aamir Qureshi/AP
Tribes fight back: Pakistani men in Bajaur have banded together to fight Taliban and Al Qaeda militants in their tribal area, bolstering the Army's two-month-old offensive there.
Rich Clabaugh–STAFF

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

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.

Tribal forces join the battle

But this progress has not only been the Pakistani Army's. Suffering from some of the worst casualties in the war, local tribesman have now formed lashkars, or militias, that claim to act independently of the Pakistani Army and against any foreign presence in their land that they consider threatening, including the Taliban's. A handful of lashkars now operate across the tribal territory.

"We had become virtually hostage to these militants who showed no respect to local customs and traditions and humiliated very respectable members of the society," says Malik Kamal Khan, the leader of the 15,000-strong lashkar from the Salarzai tribe, one of the largest.

An assembly of tribal elders was faced with the choice to surrender to the militants or oust them, the bearded tribal elder explains, brandishing an AK-47 assault rifle. "It was a difficult and risky decision, but we had to come up with something, so [we] resolved to take on the militants."

The military, while remaining reticent on this grass-roots resistance, is hardly indifferent to the trend. "The major reason for our success in Bajaur," says Maj. Gen. Ather Abbas, the spokesperson for the Pakistani Army, "is the active support of the local people for the ongoing military operation."

The early signs of success against the Taliban in Bajaur have come despite the fact that militants have been most deeply entrenched in Bajaur. "Unlike in Swat [a northern area] and the rest of FATA, the Army has encountered fixed defensives here," says Sehgal. "And they've been surprised by this."

Pakistan: ready to play hard ball?

The battle in Bajaur began just as the new prime minister, Yusuf Raza Gilani, began his first visit to Washington in August.

Observers suggested that the offensive was meant to demonstrate to the US that the new Pakistani government was willing to play hard ball, something some US officials had begun to doubt.

Last month US Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he was "encouraged" by the Bajaur offensive.

Yet, as a sign of America's waning patience with Pakistan, the US has begun launching periodic airstrikes into FATA and in September staged a rare ground raid into the territory.

At the same time, devastating suicide bombings – one at Pakistan's largest military hardware factory in August and another in Islamabad's Marriott Hotel last month – have intensified the domestic threat of militancy and turned public opinion more in favor of military action.

US military incursions in FATA have so far steered clear of Bajaur, but some observers worry that continued US strikes could erode public support for fighting militants.

The lashkars fighting the Taliban have declared that they would attack any Americans who enter their territory.

Behroz Khan contributed from Bajaur.

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