U.S. Surprised By Taliban's Land Grab In Pakistan

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Analysts are debating the motives behind Pakistan's latest offensive against the Taliban. Some speculate the military offensive is a way to win Washington's approval and an aid package worth billions of dollars.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne. In its ongoing operation to root out Taliban militants, Pakistan's special forces have taken control of the central town in the mountainous Buner Valley. The army says it's killed 50 militants in a region that was overrun by the Taliban last week.

The U.S. is urging Pakistan to move resolutely, and using billions of dollars in aid as an incentive. From Islamabad, NPR's Julie McCarthy reports on the pressures Pakistan faces in its attempt to tackle the Taliban.

JULIE MCCARTHY: Taliban militants are putting up stiff resistance in the Buner Valley, the latest theater for the Pakistani army operation termed Black Thunder One. Buner lies beside Swat Valley, the Taliban stronghold from which militants pushed into Buner last week.

At a news conference this week, the army played tapes of purported telephone intercepts between Taliban commanders talking about staging a fake withdrawal while telling fighters to lie low and dig in. Army spokesman Major General Athar Abbas said the Taliban's refusal to pull out required the military to move in to stop the Taliban abuses.

Major General ATHAR ABBAS (Spokesman, Pakistani Army): Kidnapping and killing of policeman, forceful recruitment of youth of Buner for militant training in Swat, taking over of petrol farms, private property and marble factories, banned playing of music, restricted movement of females in the area, the people were living under caution and fear. So therefore, when they were asked to leave, they did not and the military had to go in.

MCCARTHY: The banned group, Taliki(ph) Taliban Pakistan, says the operation in Buner is simply to please the United States. But the militants are not the only ones raising that objection. Defense commentator Kamran Shafi says with the U.S. focus shifting from Pakistan's role in Afghanistan to Pakistan itself, the government here is feeling the heat. And he says it's about time.

Mr. KAMRAN SHAFI (Defense Commentator): So, yes, there has been huge pressure, as there should've been, as there should've been. I'm one of those who feels that the pressure should be ratcheted up until the establishment wakes up.

MCCARTHY: Pakistan's army moved into Buner just one week before President Asif Ali Zardari is due in Washington to meet President Barack Obama. The U.S. has been alarmed by the militants' land grab and worried it was going unchecked.

Shafi says the timing of the military operation against the Taliban here makes it seem as if the Pakistani government is interested mainly in the appearance of looking tough in advance of Zardari's visit, where billions of dollars of U.S. aid are at stake. He says former President Pervez Musharraf would respond similarly before his visits to Washington.

Mr. SHAFI: There was some movement that used to come into motion. They'd catch one or two supposedly al-Qaida or Taliban people, sometimes hand them over to the Americans. There was some noise in the press. I fear this may well be one of those things, because we've heard wolf too many times.

MCCARTHY: Retired Brigadier General Mahmood Shah has been urging the military to move against the Taliban long before now, but he says the army operations underway today are less of a response to external pressure than they are to a rising tide of public opinion at home.

The brazen ambush last month of the visiting Sri Lanka cricket team sent a collective shiver through the nation. And when the Taliban spilled out of Swat Valley into neighboring Buner, inching closer to the capital, many saw that as a step too far. General Shah says the public mood reinforced the urgency to act and provided the government the space to do it.

Brigadier General MAHMOOD SHAH (Pakistani Army, Retired): You know, the people of Pakistan generally feel that the government and the army have no other option than use of military. All the peaceful options have been tried and exhausted.

MCCARTHY: General Shah says the public expects meaningful action and predicts Buner is just the beginning. But even the army says its goal is to restrict the Taliban to its base in Swat Valley, a strategy that is not likely to please their American ally, who is anxious to give no quarter to the Taliban.

Julie McCarthy, NPR News, Islamabad.

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