Pakistan Launches Military Operation To Root Out Militants

The offensive is in North Waziristan, a tribal area in the mountains bordering Afghanistan, and a haven for the Taliban and other militants. Tens of thousands of residents are pouring out of the area.

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In Pakistan, at least five soldiers and dozens of suspected militants are dead as the military launches a major ground offensive into North Waziristan. That is a tribal area in the mountains bordering Afghanistan and a haven for the Taliban and other militants. Many thousands of residents are pouring out of the area. The Pakistani Taliban is threatening reprisals, and is reportedly warning foreigners to leave the country. NPR's Philip Reeves reports.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: The seven-year conflict between Pakistan's government and its homegrown Taliban has claimed tens of thousands of lives. Pakistan's prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, was elected last year, promising to try to negotiate peace. Talks with the Pakistani Taliban went nowhere.

(Foreign language spoken)

REEVES: Then a week ago, this happened. The Taliban with Uzbek allies stormed Pakistan's busiest airport in Karachi. In all, 37 people were killed. Many Pakistanis were shocked and angry. Their army generals have lobbied for months for permission to launch a major ground offensive against North Waziristan to try to crush the militants there. Now Sharif's finally given them the go-ahead. It's not a moment too soon, says General Javed Ashraf Qazi, former head of Pakistan's intelligence agency, the ISI.

GENERAL JAVED ASHRAF QAZI: He should've realized it much earlier - that these Taliban are no friends of Pakistan - that they slaughter our people - that they play football with our heads - that they lash our girls.

REEVES: North Waziristan is slightly smaller than Delaware, but it's wild and remote mountain country bordering Afghanistan. The Pakistani army says it's now cornered off the main town, Miranshah. It's posted troops along the borders to try to stop militants from escaping and is asking Afghanistan security forces to do the same. But the Taliban have infiltrated Pakistan's big cities, especially Karachi. They're threatening to counterattack, and they're sure to do so, says Qazi

QAZI: They will strike back, and they cannot strike back in Waziristan. They will strike back in urban centers.

REEVES: Extra security forces are on the streets of the capital, Islamabad. Armed antiterrorism cops cruise around in jeeps with mounted machine guns and flashing lights. At a street corner drink store, Azif Mehmoud watches on. He says his four kids are now so fearful of an attack that they won't leave the house.

AZIF MEHMOUD: They are too afraid to go anyplace. They do not even go to the park because of the fear.

REEVES: Mehmoud says everyone is anxious.

(Foreign language spoken)

MEHMOUD: It's not only I who's worried. Everybody is worried because of it.

REEVES: Not far away, Muhammad Jamal Uddin sits at home, cross-legged on an oriental rug. He's from a right-wing religious party. He represents South Waziristan in parliament. He doesn't think the government and the generals know what they're doing.

MUHAMMAD JAMAL UDDIN: (Through translator) They do not understand that area. They cannot foresee the consequences of a war in those areas. We are the residents of that area. We know what may be the consequences.

REEVES: Uddin makes a comparison with the U.S.-led invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.

UDDIN: (Through translator) If war were a solution, then there would not of been problems in those countries.

REEVES: Pakistanis opposed to a ground offensive point to atrocities committed by the army in other operations, saying this bolsters the militants' cause. The U.S. though, is likely to favor the move. It's long been pressing Pakistan to stamp out militants in North Waziristan - to stop them launching attacks aimed at destabilizing Afghanistan after most American forces leave. Everyone acknowledges this is a daunting task with no guarantee of success.

PERVEZ HOODBHOY: Military action by itself solves only a portion of the total problem.

REEVES: That's a political activist and writer Pervez Hoodbhoy.

HOODBHOY: The Taliban are very confident about winning IN Pakistan over the long-term. They know that the bulk of the population in Pakistan supports the notion of a Shariah state.

REEVES: Hoodbhoy says changing those public attitudes and providing an alternative narrative requires decades. Philip Reeves, NPR News, Islamabad.

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