Pakistan Launches Major Anti-Taliban Operation

After months of pressure from Washington, the Pakistani government sent 30,000 troops into Taliban territory today. The offensive comes after a brutal series of insurgent attacks across Pakistan that have killed at least 175 people. NPR's Julie McCarthy reports from Islamabad, in Pakistan's capital.

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As the Pakistani army launches what it calls a major offensive against militants, Afghans across the border are waiting to find out whether they'll return to the polls to choose a new leader. This, as new questions are being raised about past actions by the U.S. commander there, General Stanley McChrystal.

First to Pakistan, though, where, today, the government moved thousands of troops into the Taliban's main stronghold in a semiautonomous part of the country called South Waziristan.

Over the past 10 days, militants have attacked military and intelligence targets throughout Pakistan, killing at least 175 people. The United States believes an area in South Waziristan is where Taliban and al-Qaida militants train and plan attacks against U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

NPR's Julie McCarthy is in Pakistan's capital, Islamabad.

And, Julie, this is a fairly complicated operation for Pakistan's army. Why is it so tough?

JULIE McCARTHY: Well, first of all, South Waziristan, which, as you point out, is in the southern tip of the federally administered tribal areas along the Afghan border, has historically foiled aggressors for all sorts of reasons. Its terrain is treacherous; its foothills and hiding places and crevices, which is good for the Taliban, bad for the army. Then the tribes of Waziristan, they're fiercely independent and autonomous, and some are with the Taliban; others less so. Rivalries are abounding, which is tricky for the army to navigate.

And the Taliban and their associates from al-Qaida have dug in over the course of at least the last eight years since the war next door in Afghanistan began. They know the terrain, which gives them a huge advantage over the military, which has been handed some humiliating defeats at the hands of the militants in failed operations there before.

RAZ: And as you point out, this is not the first time the Pakistan army has attempted to dislodge the Taliban from the region. What is the strategy here now?

McCARTHY: Well, it looks like it's to squeeze them and isolate them strategy. We're told that they've launched a three-pronged attack; one that has soldiers pressing down from the north into Central Waziristan; another prong has troops swooping in from the east moving west; and the third has Pakistani ground forces moving from west to east. The army has been pounding some of this terrain for months, all in an attempt to soften up these targets in advance of troops coming in on the ground.

RAZ: Now, of course, Julie, the U.S. wants to cut down on the number of militants who cross the border into Afghanistan and attack U.S. and NATO troops next door in Afghanistan.

McCARTHY: Mm-hmm.

RAZ: How much is this offensive expected to disrupt al-Qaida and the Taliban?

McCARTHY: Well, the theory is that the Taliban center of gravity exists in South Waziristan. And if you degrade that, you degrade the insurgency across the board.

Defense analysts are also saying that what that theory overlooks is the fact that the insurgency is not relegated to Waziristan or those tribal areas that are lawless. It's spread to the settled parts of the state of Pakistan. It's spread to Southern Punjab. It's infiltrated the Northwest Frontier Province, which we saw in Swat Valley this summer. And one observer called it, you know, it's a small part of a very big game.

And as far as the Americans and the NATO troops across the border, the fighting in South Waziristan may not help the American effort in Afghanistan to a great extent because North Waziristan is said to be the link into Afghanistan more so than South Waziristan.

RAZ: That's NPR's Julie McCarthy in Islamabad for us.

Julie, thanks so much.

McCARTHY: Thank you.

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