Pakistani Forces Battle Taliban In South Waziristan

Government troops in Pakistan claim to be making steady gains in their assault on the Taliban in the tribal region along the Afghan border. The Pakistani forces are operating in the territory known as South Waziristan. The Taliban say they will defend the territory "to the last drop of blood."


We turn now to Pakistan, where government troops claim to be making steady gains in their assault on the Taliban in the tribal region along the Afghan border. The Pakistani forces are operating in the rugged mountainous area of South Waziristan. The Taliban say, they will defend their territory, quote, "to the last drop of blood."

NPR's Julie McCarthy joins us on the line from Pakistan's capital, Islamabad. Good morning.

JULIE MCCARTHY: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: And Julie, three days into this fight, how has it unfolded so far?

MCCARTHY: Well, you know, this operation, which began Saturday, was launched as a ground offensive, but security sources told me today that the Pakistani military is still relying on air power. The air force is using jet fighters to bomb from high elevation because the Taliban have positioned a lot of anti-aircraft defenses that make things like helicopter gunships vulnerable, that make ground troops vulnerable.

We were told that the jet fighters have pounded the militant controlled towns of Makin, Ladha and Katkai in the heart of the Taliban territory, and that ground forces are advancing along two major routes today, closing in on the militant sanctuary. The military says it's also captured some strategic heights as they go.

MONTAGNE: And how much resistance has the Taliban put up?

MCCARTHY: Well, the army says that at one point, the Taliban had abandoned their positions. And the Taliban spokesman, Azam Tariq, has admitted that the military was occupying some key towns, but said that the militants had pushed back security personnel from their positions. The militants claimed that Taliban-fired missiles had killed eight soldiers in the town of Shakai, which is one of the cities on the access road leading into the Taliban territory under siege.

None of this stuff can be confirmed or can be verified with any sense of authenticity. The army has restricted access to the battlefield and the surrounding towns. So the claims need to be seen through the prism of each side, presenting their version in the best light. But the militants' strategy seems to be to hit Pakistani government forces and then run. In fact, they say that's their stated strategy. They want to run deeper into their own territory, heading for the forests, up into the mountains, hoping that the ground troops will pursue them. And security analysts and military sources say that's a treacherous scenario for the military.

MONTAGNE: What is the possibility looking ahead of this fight spilling out from South Waziristan into other areas of Pakistan? Because that's certainly happened.

MCCARTHY: Well, the Taliban spokesman threatened that the operation is not going to be restricted to South Waziristan alone, and that it's going to engulf the entire country. The army chief of staff had warned that this offensive was likely going to mean more terror attacks against military and police installations, but there's also concern, Renee, about the Taliban in Afghanistan. Will they come to the aid of their brethren in Pakistan? South Waziristan is where the Taliban and the U.S. believes al-Qaida had their training camps. It's where they went to repair and regroup. It represents their sanctuary. And one military source said today that South Waziristan is a strategic place for the Taliban, and he fully expected that the Afghan Taliban would try to come to the aid of the Pakistani Taliban.

MONTAGNE: Although, is there any indication of that sort of cross-border support so far?

MCCARTHY: Well, you know, this particular area that's inside South Waziristan that the government is closing in on shares no border with Afghanistan, and the army's strategy is to squeeze the militants and isolate them there.

MONTAGNE: Julie, thanks very much.

MCCARTHY: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Julie McCarthy speaking to us from Islamabad, Pakistan.

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