Pakistan Offensive Kills Taliban Fighters

Pakistan's Army says a major offensive against the Taliban in the northwest region of the country has killed at least two dozen militants. One Pakistani soldier was also killed on Sunday. Thousands of residents are reported to be fleeing in fear of renewed fighting. Washington has expressed alarm as the Taliban has gained strength in Pakistan and issued stern warnings to its nuclear-armed ally.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne. Pakistan's Army is pressing on with an offensive against the Taliban in that country's northwest territories. According to Pakistan's military, dozens of militants have been killed and thousands of residents are fleeing the fighting. Washington has expressed alarm at the Taliban's stronghold in nuclear-armed Pakistan, and it's issued stern warnings that the militants must be stopped. From Islamabad, NPR's Julie McCarthy reports on how those words are being received.

JULIE MCCARTHY: Pakistan's chief of the army said last week that victory against the militants will be achieved at all costs, and officials deny that the new military assertiveness was prompted by pressure from the United States. But retired Major General Shujaat Ali Khan says operations are overdue to root out the Taliban from areas that are increasingly falling under its sway.

Major General SHUJAAT ALI KHAN (Pakistani Army, Retired): There can't have any half measures. So this time around, I think the army is quite serious. When the battle is joined it will be joined in earnest. And we may not see the end of Taliban for some time to come, but we will certainly see the Talibanization process halted, blocked, prevented from getting to be another monster in future.

MCCARTHY: The Taliban has evidently felt emboldened after wresting a deal with the government. It instituted sharia law in an area of the northwest known as Swat Valley in exchange for militants disarming.

But flush with success, the Taliban swept into the neighboring district of Buner last week, toting guns and exhorting residents to follow their strict version of Islam. They pulled back over the weekend, but the military operation launched yesterday was reported to have come after militants ambushed a convoy in a nearby district of Lower Dir.

Veteran Pakistani journalist and author, Ahmed Rashid, says private citizens and public officials are increasingly alarmed here.

Mr. AHMED RASHID (Journalist, Author): I think the mood in the country has dramatically shifted in the last few days after the events of Buner and Swat. And I think there's enormous pressure now on the government and the army to perform. This is really something new, because in the past, there has been a lot of confusion about whether the Taliban were the good guys or the bad guys. I think the majority of the people now believe that the Taliban are the bad guys.

Pakistan's offenses Sunday in Lower Dir is significant for its location. Dir borders the militant-filled Swat Valley on the east and Afghanistan on the west. Losing it to militants would be about as serious for the United States as for Pakistan. The U.S. is deploying thousands more troops to Afghanistan to fight al-Qaida and its associates.

But Pakistan's former ambassador to Kabul, Rustam Shah Mohmand, says the U.S.-led war on terror is the driving force behind the militants gaining influence inside Pakistan. He says U.S. drone attacks have deeply angered the Pakistani public and that the government must rethink its position on the U.S. using drones on Pakistani soil.

Mr. RUSTAM SHAH MOHMAND (Pakistan's Former Ambassador to Kabul): By taking a very firm position on the drone attacks, they will help stop the drone attacks, and that will be considered to be a matter of tremendous satisfaction on the Pakistani masses, and then marginalize those extremists who wouldn't cooperate under any circumstances.

MCCARTHY: But retired Major General Shujaat Ali Khan says the drones are effective because they are eliminating militants who are plaguing Pakistan.

As for international concern about who will protect Pakistan's nuclear weapons should the Taliban advance on the capital Islamabad, the retired general insists there is no chance of extremists getting their hands on that arsenal.

Maj. Gen. ALI KHAN: I don't think at all that this scenario can ever develop. This is, I think, more of a ploy to sort of scare us into believing or scare the world into believing that this can happen.

MCCARTHY: General Khan says neither the Pakistan government nor military is going to accept Talibanization beyond a certain point. The fact it is accepting it at all is what deeply troubles many both inside and outside Pakistan.

Julie McCarthy, NPR News, Islamabad.

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