Pakistan Army Gains Upper Hand In Swat Valley

Pakistan's army is in the middle of a major counter-offensive against Islamist extremists in the greater Swat Valley. Government troops claim significant success in their five-week-old offensive against the Taliban, including the recapture of the main city, Mingora.

LIANE HANSEN, host:

Pakistan has claimed significant success in its five-week-old offensive against the Taliban in the Swat Valley, including the capture of the main city, Mingora. But it is widely believed that Pakistan cannot defeat extremism without eliminating the Taliban from its haven in the country's rugged border region with Afghanistan.

From Islamabad, NPR's Julie McCarthy has more.

JULIE MCCARTHY: Along Pakistan's western border, a new exodus is underway. Abdul Kayum(ph) is one of thousands who have fled, anticipating that the army's offensive against Islamist militants will widen to include South Waziristan. Kayum says his family left after President Asif Zardari was quoted saying Waziristan was next in line after Swat Valley. The president later denied the remark, but Kayum says the damage was done.

Mr. ABDUL KAYUM: (Foreign language spoken)

MCCARTHY: It created panic and now suffering, says Kayum, whose 30 family members have taken refuge with relatives away from the border. People are totally confused. They're leaving everything behind, he says, including the soothing climate. Army convoys are going in, and people who are afraid are getting out early, Kayum says.

Fleeing residents report Taliban fighters fortifying positions along mountaintops and digging trenches in preparation for a battle with Pakistan's army. Deadly skirmishes in recent days have deepened speculation of a full assault against the Taliban. But army spokesman Major General Athar Abbas insists the military operations in Waziristan are limited.

Major General ATHAR ABBAS (Army Spokesman): I wish we had the capability to open more fronts. But if you have sufficient resources, only then you can go for opening more fronts. You have to go according to a sequence - first things first.

MCCARTHY: General Abbas says the military has its hands full in Swat Valley flushing out the Taliban, reestablishing civilian rule and allowing residents displaced by the fighting to return home.

Mr. ABBAS: That's right, and before that, the requirement is the restoration of services, which in many of the cities, towns, stand completely destroyed.

MCCARTHY: Author and analyst Ahmed Rashid says the army is in a hurry to allow refugees back, because of the huge strain their dislocation has created on the country. The displaced now number nearly three million.

Mr. AHMED RASHID (Author, Analyst): But the refugees are not going to go back unless it's convinced that the army, one, is going to protect the population, but, also, that it's going to go after the leadership. And, of course, the leadership is in Fatah.

MCCARTHY: Fatah is the federally-administered tribal areas along the Afghan border. The Pakistani Taliban mostly controls this region comprised of seven districts, including South Waziristan.

Rashid and other analysts insist that there could be no long-term solution to Islamist extremism inside Pakistan without eliminating it from Fatah - the hub of Jihadist activity. Rashid says the momentum of the offensive against the militants should be maintained on the western border with Afghanistan. But he says that will require cooperation from archrival India, which has long deployed the bulk of its troops along Pakistan's eastern border. Rashid says stepping back would help.

Mr. RASHID: So that that could offer Pakistan some kind of relief not to have to place so many troops on the Indian border, so that it could, in fact, move its troops to the areas in Pakistan, which are needed - Swat and the tribal areas.

MCCARTHY: But retired Brigadier Mahmood Shah expects action against the militants in the border areas, sooner rather than later.

Mr. MAHMOOD SHAH (Retired Brigadier): They're saying that the army will be fighting from post to post and from one mountain to another mountain. But they will be sufficed by the weight of the attacks, by the timing they're going to be - they'll fight about the type of oppression.

MCCARTHY: A bombing in the country's cultural capital, Lahore, and a succession of attacks in Peshawar this past week, demonstrate the lethal reach of extremists here. The Taliban called the carnage in Lahore retaliation for the offensive in Swat, which the army says has killed over 1,000 militants.

But political analyst Musharraf Zedi(ph) cautions that Swat is different from the border region, which is poverty-stricken and a longtime stronghold of the militants. Zedi says there are limits to what a military offensive can achieve there.

Mr. MUSHARRAF ZEDI (Political Analyst): After all of this is done, somebody somewhere will eventually also have to sit down and engage with these folks. And at the end of the offensive is the starting point of an engagement of some kind.

MCCARTHY: Zedi says you cannot simply bomb back to the Stone Age a place that is still in the Stone Age.

Julie McCarthy, NPR News, Islamabad.

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