Pakistan Launches Major Offensive Against Taliban

Pakistani troops are moving into the region of South Waziristan to launch an offensive against Taliban fighters. Host Scott Simon talks to NPR's Julie McCarthy in Islamabad to get the latest updates.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Pakistan's army has begun a long-awaited offensive against the Taliban, in the insurgent stronghold of South Waziristan. Military officials said nearly 30,000 Pakistani troops are moving from three directions into the region along the Afghan border, and today residents of the area are fleeing as the fighting begins.

NPR's Julie McCarthy joins us from Islamabad. Julie, thanks for being with us.

JULIE MCCARTHY: Thank you.

SIMON: What are latest developments you can tell us about?

MCCARTHY: Well, the military spokesman, General Athar Abbas, told me that the operation began after midnight last night. A curfew has been imposed in parts of South Waziristan to protect advancing troops, and news agencies are saying that troops were converging, as you had mentioned, from three directions, and that some skirmishes had already taken place, so they've met resistance. Now, nearly 100,000 civilians had already fled over the months in advance of this operation because it's been talked about for that long, and thousands more were fleeing today.

SIMON: You mentioned that we've been hearing about if for months. Really since the Swat Valley - the offensive there ended in the Swat Valley this summer. Did the surge of terror attacks apparently tell the military they had to act?

MCCARTHY: Well, I think that that appears to have been a major driver here, Scott. The army chief has reported to have told the civilian leadership in a briefing yesterday that the situation had become so dangerous because of the terrorist activities being planned in South Waziristan that a military operation had become unavoidable. You know, more than 150 people have been killed in a spree of Taliban attacks in the past two weeks alone, and the political pressure was mounting on the government to act, not only from an increasingly worried public but from the United States as well. The U.S. was looking for Pakistan's help in stopping the Taliban from crossing into Afghanistan, where they attack U.S. and NATO troops.

SIMON: What are the Pakistani forces expect to encounter there in South Waziristan? What's that area like?

MCCARTHY: Well, its small, it's half the size of Connecticut, but it's still the biggest in size of what's known as the seven federally administered tribal areas along the Afghan border. It's named after the Wazir tribe, it's mostly a mass of rugged and complex hills and ridges. Its western border is the border with Afghanistan. It's in hospitable terrain for the army. But it's been a safe haven for the militants, who are well entrenched there and therefore would have a tactical advantage.

SIMON: And how is the Pakistani army expected to deploy in terrain like that, which has been historically so intimidating to so many armies?

MCCARTHY: That's right. Well, it's expected to attack with ground troops, of course, backed by, you know, jets and attack helicopters and tanks and artillery.

For months, the army has been using aircraft and artillery to soften up the militant hideouts. But the militants have had years to prepare their defenses and honed anti-tank weapons and amassed rocket-propelled grenades. And of course time to lay IEDs and booby-trap the roads.

They're well acquainted with this rugged place that is largely unfamiliar to Pakistani troops, and as you point out, has stymied armies over the centuries.

SIMON: How many soldiers, how many forces are we talking about on both sides?

MCCARTHY: Well, the army says that currently there are about 30,000 soldiers in place and that they face anywhere from 5,000 to 10,000 militants. The true hardcore are said to be less than that, but they're augmented by some pretty battle-hardened fighters - the Uzbeks and Arabs. And of course the U.S. says al-Qaida's there working closely with the Taliban in Pakistan.

You know, part of the complexity of a battle like this is that the army is having to contend with rival militant factions. And they're hoping that the chief rivals somehow stay on the sidelines, so that's another complicating factor in all of this.

SIMON: Julie, can you project what the reaction of many people in the Pakistani public is likely to be?

MCCARTHY: Well, you know, the most recent attacks have targeted the Pakistani state itself - the army general headquarters, the federal investigative agency, the police. And when they fell victim to the militant attacks, many Pakistanis began to wonder what was the military waiting for.

You know, if the intelligence and the military authorities were convinced, as they said they were, that South Waziristan is the nerve center for the planning and executing of the stream terror attacks, then why delay an offensive any further?

So now there appears to be unity in the country. The morale in the military is high. They're buoyed by the success, dislodging militants from the Swat Valley, as you pointed out. And they're hoping to reverse the succession of failed operations in Waziristan over the years.

But the army chief said watch for retaliation. He expects an increase in attacks, terror attacks on urban centers as this operation gets underway.

SIMON: NPR's Julie McCarthy in Islamabad, thanks very much.

MCCARTHY: Thank you.

SIMON: And you're listening to NPR News.

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