Pakistani Forces Target Pro-Taliban Fighters

In several strategic regions, Pakistan's military is fighting pro-Taliban insurgents. A recent Taliban attack near Peshawar has heightened fears that the military can't combat the insurgency.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

LYNN NEARY, host:

And I'm Lynn Neary.

In his final state of the union address last night, President Bush touted successes in Iraq, where we'll go in a moment. The president also talked about five other parts of the world where people's freedoms continue to be diminished by terrorism.

One of them was Pakistan where the military continues to battle pro-Taliban insurgents. The Taliban recently launched a brazen attack on one Pakistani town not far from the major commercial center of Peshawar.

NPR's Jackie Northam reports.

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JACKIE NORTHAM: The dirty and crowded city of Peshawar is the gateway to Pakistan's tribal areas and on the road to Afghanistan. It's also just 20 miles away from Dara Adamkhel, notorious smuggling haven for arms and drugs.

Late last week, pro-Taliban militants hijacked four Pakistani army trucks in Dara Adamkhel loaded with munitions and captured the tunnel-linking Peshawar to Pakistan's tribal belt. The military came in hard using gun ships to attack the Taliban positions.

Rammimullah Yusufzai(ph), the editor of the Pakistani paper, The News, says the Taliban has been active in the area for more than a year. Yusufzai says this is the first time Pakistan's military has reacted.

Mr. RAMMIMULLAH YUSUFZAI (Editor, The News): There was no choice, the army had to act because if the army convoys are not secure, if army trucks our seized and if the army cannot have a safe passage through a major highway, then that shows that the army is so weak and the government has no control.

NORTHAM: It took three days for the army to recapture the tunnel Sunday and drive the approximately 500 Taliban militants into the surrounding hills. But the army hasn't regained total control of the area.

Retired Brigadier General Mahmoud Shaz(ph) spent years working for military intelligence in the tribal regions. He says, this time, the government and the military took action but often turns a blind eye to Taliban activity.

Brigadier General MAHMOUD SHAZ (Pakistani Army, Retired): If the government delays action, tries to put the dirt under the carpet, well, that's not a good attitude, I would say. They should have a zero tolerance for all those people who try to take law into their own hand. Roughly from this area of Dara Adamkhel this is Peshawar (unintelligible).

NORTHAM: Brigadier Shaz holds a large map showing a western side of Pakistan. His spread fingers move from the southern part up to the northern area. The Taliban are now active in all seven tribal regions and are making incursions into towns and villages in the surrounding districts.

Brig. Gen. SHAZ: What people are feeling the worst scenario could happen, is the Talibanization(ph) spreads through the whole of frontiers(ph) province. If it does, it will consume the whole army.

NORTHAM: Shaz says the Taliban has a coordinated strategy and may be opening new fronts to divert the army from its major operations in South Waziristan. The increased violence throughout the frontier regions, assassinations, suicide bombings, missile attacks - have put communities on edge.

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NORTHAM: Here on the lawn at the University of Peshawar, fresh face students, male and female, mingle between classes. For the most part, the females have their heads covered. Some use their veils to cover most of their face. The Taliban has threatened the university for allowing males and females to study together.

Professor Sarfraz Khan says the Taliban has also come on to the campus to collect money and harass the students.

Professor SARFRAZ KHAN (University of Peshwar): We have seen extremists turned goats(ph), threatening students then they are sitting in a canteen together, male and female, or they are just in their classrooms or in the corridors, things like that, and talking to each other.

NORTHAM: But Khan says nobody stands up to the Taliban, not the school's administrators, the police or the military. Another professor at the university, Dr. Ijaz Khan, says people don't speak up because they're afraid that some in the military and the government are sympathetic to the Taliban.

Dr. IJAZ KHAN (Department of International Relations, University of Peshawar): People are just apprehensive. And you see the problem is even if they don't agree with the Taliban. They don't trust the government.

NORTHAM: Few believe the Taliban could capture and hold Peshawar. Nonetheless, the militants are having an enormous impact on this frontier city.

Jackie Northam, NPR News.

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