MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Near the Afghan border in Pakistan, it's day three of the army's offensive against the Taliban in South Waziristan. Military spokesmen say operations are ahead of schedule, progressing more swiftly than expected. But the army also says it has met pockets of stiff resistance.

From Islamabad, here's NPR's Julie McCarthy.

JULIE MCCARTHY: Briefing reporters on Pakistan's latest offensive against extremists, Major General Athar Abbas said that in the last 24 hours government forces have executed an enveloping maneuver around the town of Kotkai, in the eastern sector of their three-pronged advance. He says troops took heights overlooking the militant-controlled city and secured towns on the way to Kotkai. Abbas said troops converging from the west were consolidating their positions and had blown up ammunition caches as well as anti-aircraft guns. Abbas said knocking out militants' defenses was key to success, but he warned it's a long way before the militants are defeated.

Major General ATHAR ABBAS (Pakistan Army): The pattern of operations in the past in these areas are that they do give resistance. But when they lose the area, they also return in either pinpricks or raids or unconventional operations. So it's a little long way — it will be premature to really say what exactly is the pattern.

MCCARTHY: Abbas estimated the army is ahead of where it thought it would be by about 36 hours. Advances slowed, however, on the third front of the army's push to surround the Taliban and al-Qaida stronghold. Soldiers moving into the area from North Waziristan took incoming missile fire from the town of Makeen, the base of the late Baitullah Mehsud, the Taliban leader killed by a U.S. missile strike in August. He is succeeded by Hakimullah Mehsud, also part of the Mehsud tribe from which the Taliban draws strong support. The army said it is counting on a rival Taliban group led by the Wazir tribe of South Waziristan to stay on the sidelines and not enter the fray on behalf of their brethren in the Mehsud territory. General Abbas said the neutrality would help the Pakistani military further isolate the Taliban they are trying to encircle.

Maj. Gen. ABBAS: Because the center of gravity of the whole terrorism problem of our country lies in this area and this organization. I think we would like to also talk to the devil in this regard. So there is no harm in isolating this organization from the others.

MCCARTHY: Twenty-eight thousand troops have been deployed in Waziristan against an enemy that is, according to General Abbas, anywhere from 5,000 to 15,000 strong. The ratio of government troops to Taliban fighters is roughly three to one. It's a proportion that defense analysts, such as retired Brigadier Javed Hussain, say is too low. Hussain says too few troops risks forcing the Pakistan army into a guerrilla war that can carry on for years.

Mr. JAVED HUSSAIN (Retired Brigadier, Pakistan Army): Ten years of American involvement in Vietnam, 10 years of Soviets in Afghanistan and about nine years of Americans again in Afghanistan. So, this is something which the Pakistan army will not be able to afford - a protracted war.

MCCARTHY: General Abbas defended the force strength as appropriate, and said as the army tightens the noose around the Taliban, forces are also closing off possible escape routes to Afghanistan. Though authorities say militants crossing over into Afghanistan do not pose much of a threat since the territory that the troops are encircling does not share a border with Afghanistan. The Taliban has countered army claims with its own, saying militants have inflicted heavy causalities on government troops. By the army's reckoning, 78 militants have been killed so far, along with nine soldiers. The fighting has also spawned a civilian exodus from South Waziristan, more than 100,000 people have fled their homes.

Julie McCarthy, NPR News, Islamabad.

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