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Pakistan Touts Military Successes Against Taliban

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Pakistani military personnel patrol the newly captured i

Pakistani military personnel patrol the newly captured town of Sararogha, one of two Taliban strongholds in South Waziristan where the army took a group of journalists to see the progress Pakistan forces have made in their latest attempt to dislodge extremists who are destabilizing Pakistan. Julie McCarthy/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Julie McCarthy/NPR
Pakistani military personnel patrol the newly captured

Pakistani military personnel patrol the newly captured town of Sararogha, one of two Taliban strongholds in South Waziristan where the army took a group of journalists to see the progress Pakistan forces have made in their latest attempt to dislodge extremists who are destabilizing Pakistan.

Julie McCarthy/NPR

Pakistan's army says it has captured most major Taliban bases in South Waziristan. It plans to fan out across the area's rugged countryside to hunt down militants. The tribal area along the Afghan border has been a command center for extremists.

The army flew a group of foreign and Pakistani journalists to the area to see two Taliban strongholds that were captured in the offensive.

The first stop on the rare tour of Pakistan's sand-dusted badlands, which resemble the stark American Southwest, was the town of Sararogha.

A helicopter deposited the army-escorted group on the outskirts of the former Taliban bastion that has been off-limits to Western journalists for years. Unescorted visits to this tribal area where al-Qaida and the Taliban set up training camps were out of the question.

The army's capture of Sararogha halfway through its four-week offensive in South Waziristan was a bittersweet victory. In 2008, the Taliban overran the fort manned by security forces — taking 25 frontier corpsmen hostage and executing half of them.

Some of the weapons uncovered in the Taliban stronghold of Laddah, Pakistan. i

Some of the weapons uncovered in the Taliban stronghold of Laddah, a village captured by Pakistani forces as their 1-month-old offensive advances deeper into the militant sanctuary of South Waziristan. Julie McCarthy/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Julie McCarthy/NPR
Some of the weapons uncovered in the Taliban stronghold of Laddah, Pakistan.

Some of the weapons uncovered in the Taliban stronghold of Laddah, a village captured by Pakistani forces as their 1-month-old offensive advances deeper into the militant sanctuary of South Waziristan.

Julie McCarthy/NPR

The commander of operations, Brig. Mohammad Shafiq, standing on the rooftop of a mosque overlooking the decimated fort, says it took five days to recapture the town.

"The resistance was extremely tough," Shafiq says. "We had a lot of rockets, anti-aircraft guns and the terrorists which were defending the high grounds. We have taken all the high ground."

The battle devastated the central market of this now deserted village. Patrolling soldiers eagerly display the sizable cache of arms, rockets and rifles the army discovered in Sararogha.

"They never ran short of the ammunition," Shafiq says. "Thousands of those rockets. Thousands. You see that pile there? They don't mind firing 100. If one gets us, they're OK."

Shafiq sweeps a hand across a table loaded with improvised explosive devices, including a booby-trapped toy car. Among the debris left behind in this mud and brick complex, where the Taliban once convened court and their conferences, were chemistry books and jihadi pamphlets.

After apologizing for its content, an officer reads from one of the books: "America is the leader of that Satanic militia which has launched a war against us based on their money, obscenity and vulgarity."

The rugged landscape of Pakistan's South Waziristan captured from an army copter. i

The rugged landscape of South Waziristan is shown from an army helicopter. In lower elevations, barren rocky ridges cut through dried riverbeds, while in higher altitudes, forest-carpeted hills provide an ideal setting for Taliban militants looking to melt away from the army's offensive. Julie McCarthy/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Julie McCarthy/NPR
The rugged landscape of Pakistan's South Waziristan captured from an army copter.

The rugged landscape of South Waziristan is shown from an army helicopter. In lower elevations, barren rocky ridges cut through dried riverbeds, while in higher altitudes, forest-carpeted hills provide an ideal setting for Taliban militants looking to melt away from the army's offensive.

Julie McCarthy/NPR

The army says it has killed more than 550 militants and lost 70 soldiers in South Waziristan. The recaptured town of Laddah is not far from where the late Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud was killed in a U.S. drone attack in August.

Laddah is dotted with British-era buildings of the last century and lies in a bucolic valley surrounded by high ridges. On a warm autumn day, it is difficult to imagine that a war has raged here.

"This area had been the scene of fierce fighting even before the establishment of Pakistan," says Maj. Nasir Mehsud. "As you can see, the terrain is very tough, it is forested area, the valleys are treacherous, which is ideally suited for guerrilla sort of warfare."

Army spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas says the military offensive shatters the myth that South Waziristan is "the graveyard of armies." Abbas says the fact that Pakistani troops have advanced deep into a territory widely regarded as having the fiercest and deadliest defenders demonstrates the military's resolve in rooting out extremists who are destabilizing the state.

A booby-trapped toy car is among the scores of improvised explosive devices found in Pakistan. i

A booby-trapped toy car is among the scores of improvised explosive devices the army says the militants produced in Sararogha, Pakistan. Fleeing militants left behind large caches of ammunition, including rockets, rifles and rudimentary rocket launchers. Julie McCarthy/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Julie McCarthy/NPR
A booby-trapped toy car is among the scores of improvised explosive devices found in Pakistan.

A booby-trapped toy car is among the scores of improvised explosive devices the army says the militants produced in Sararogha, Pakistan. Fleeing militants left behind large caches of ammunition, including rockets, rifles and rudimentary rocket launchers.

Julie McCarthy/NPR

"This was a fountainhead of terrorism," Abbas says. "The whole area was lost to the state. So first, it was most important to dislodge. Because the other terrorist organizations were also drawing aspirations by seeing the existence of this organization and the state not doing anything about it."

The army estimates there are 8,000 to 10,000 militants in South Waziristan. With the army also claiming to have killed only a fraction of that number, and claiming to have captured most of their bases, the question becomes: Where are the rest of the militants?

The army spokesman says most remain in the area, and the army plans to fan out across South Waziristan's rugged countryside to hunt them down. But analysts believe a large number of the Taliban has blended into surrounding tribal areas to regroup and prepare to fight another day.

Professor and political analyst Khadim Hussain says that even before the offensive began, the militants shifted their operational structure and command.

"They have just opened a new front in the suburbs of Peshawar," Hussain says. "So Peshawar is under a guerrilla siege right now."

Hussain added: "Whatever they achieved in South Waziristan, they could not actually do any damage to the network. So the network does have the capability to strike back."

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