Pakistan's Military Attacks Taliban In Swat Valley
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
In Pakistan, the army has launched an operation in the Swat Valley. That's the one-time tourist destination in the countries northwest that's been overrun by the Taliban. And in the last 24 hours the militants have tried to consolidate their control by taking over police headquarters and government buildings. Expecting a battle between government forces and the Taliban, thousands of people are pouring out of the area.
NPR's Julie McCarthy joins us on the line from Islamabad. And Julie, what do you know of what is happening at this point in the Swat Valley?
JULIE McCARTHY: Well, the Pakistani army, the military in Swat, says that helicopter gunships are pounding militant positions in and around the main city Mingora, and they're attacking militants at an emerald mine in the city that they occupy. Now, there's been rain and clouds over the area. That's lifted, so the aircraft can now have a better view of what the Taliban positions are.
Having said that, Renee, I think it's worth noting that while, you know, the uniformed police barricaded themselves in their office, the militants openly seized control of the Swat Valley. Eyewitnesses said that in the light of day the Taliban had been free to roam, they were mining roads, conducting armed patrols, taking up strategic positions on top of tall buildings, occupying homes.
So it looks as if civilian authority has collapsed, and rather than be caught in fighting, many people are piling up their belongings on anything that moves and streaming out of Swat Valley.
MONTAGNE: Well, these folks from the Swat Valley, who up until not so long ago had a pretty quiet life, they're pretty much stuck in the middle.
MCCARTHY: That's right. The information minister in Swat Valley says about 500,000 people who feel that they're stuck in the middle are expected to flee. A lot will go to their relatives in other areas. Some are going to wind up in government-run camps that the authorities say they're setting up around the region.
But this is just compounding the misery for Swat Valley, which was, as you pointed out, a tourist destination, a spectacular place in peace times. But in the past two years, hundreds of thousands were forced to flee because of fighting, and those who did go to the cities of Peshawar and Karachi and Islamabad criticized the military operations in Swat as heavy-handed and botched.
And reports are emerging today that civilians have again been killed in these latest clashes. And when you ask these fleeing families who they blame for their misfortune, they say the government.
MONTAGNE: And Julie, why would that be, since these folks, I mean, by all reports weren't so happy when the Taliban came in and took over?
MCCARTHY: That's right - beheading their opponents and burning girls' schools. But this is a complex question here. In Swat Valley, people were completely disillusioned. Justice took years if it came. Civilian authority was ineffectual. Along comes the Taliban, exploits that anger, and packages sharia law as deliverance.
Well, they got that, last month, and the government hoped it would bring peace and disarmament through that deal. But no sooner than the ink was dry that the Taliban was pushing over the borders of Swat Valley into Buner.
Now, many saw that as just pure land grab and said enough. Peace deals only give the Taliban time to regroup. But you have this whole other attitude here and it's rooted in deep anti-American feelings about the U.S.-led war on terror, for which these drone attacks are really a symbol.
And a lot of people here believe that aggressively taking on the Taliban is caving into Washington. And the country seems divided over military operations or peace deals as the best way to handle the threat.
MONTAGNE: Well, of course Washington has been pushing for a tougher response on the part of the government. In fact, is this military response by Pakistan, does this appear to be that tough a response?
MCCARTHY: Well, you know, the military is sounding more aggressive. The army spokesman said that the Taliban had violated all the norms of the peace deal in Swat. And the strikes from the air and the fighting on the ground suggested that the army may be coming out of the barracks there.
But there's no official word of a full-scale operation, although residents are bracing for it, and certainly President Asif Ali Zardari, who's in Washington today, is under intense pressure from the Obama administration to keep up military operations against the Taliban. The U.S. says that unless that threat is eliminated in Pakistan, the war against al-Qaida next door in Afghanistan won't be won.
MONTAGNE: NPR's Julie McCarthy is following the fighting in the Swat Valley in Pakistan, joining us on the line from Islamabad. Thanks very much.
MCCARTHY: Thank you.