Government forces Saturday attacked the strongholds of Taliban fighters who for the first time had appeared poised to make at least a symbolic strike at a major Pakistani city.
The offensive in the Khyber tribal agency just outside Peshawar, the main city in the country’s troubled northwest, marked an abrupt about-face for Pakistan’s new government. Until Saturday’s action, the governing coalition had sought to negotiate with the insurgents instead of take them on militarily.
It was unclear whether the operation marked a long-term change in the government’s approach to dealing with the Taliban. Western nations, including the United States, have expressed deep misgivings about Pakistan attempting to strike truces with pro-Taliban local commanders.
In a sign of the central government’s ambivalence about fighting the militants, only paramilitary soldiers of the Frontier Corps, who are lightly equipped and poorly trained in comparison with regular army troops, took part in the Khyber operation.
About 700 of the paramilitary troops took part in the offensive, setting up sandbagged emplacements on the city’s edge and lobbing artillery shells at militant hide-outs in the foothills leading to the historic Khyber Pass.
In a scene that was shown over and over again on national television, government troops blew up the headquarters of the main Khyber warlord, an illiterate former bus driver named Mangal Bagh. He was said to have fled north to the rugged Tirah Valley.
By day’s end, the Frontier Corps’ commander, Maj. Gen. Mohammed Alam Khattak, said his troops had seized the high ground outside the city and destroyed three militant bases. One insurgent was killed, he said.
The clash capped days of increasingly provocative actions by the militants, who had filtered into Peshawar from the nearby tribal areas, staging abductions, threatening judges and teachers, and sending pickup trucks full of armed men even into heavily fortified parts of the city.
Most analysts said it was extremely unlikely the militants could have actually seized Peshawar, the provincial capital. But the insurgents showed they could score propaganda points and frighten residents just by giving the appearance of having their sights on the city, which is less than a two-hour drive from the capital, Islamabad.
“The idea of Peshawar falling is over-dramatic,” military analyst Nasim Zehra said. “But you have real forays by groups that have no respect, to say the very least, for law and order. They were right on the doorstep.”
Across the border in Afghanistan, Taliban fighters employed a similar tactic this month when they briefly seized a strategic district just outside Kandahar, the main city in the south, and threatened to use it as a springboard for attacks on the city. Afghan and Western forces easily drove them away, but the confrontation left many city-dwellers rattled and feeling insecure.
In the Khyber agency, insurgents in recent weeks had taken control of main roads, including vital supply routes for Western forces in Afghanistan. Attacks on military convoys have intensified.
Life went on as usual Saturday in much of Peshawar, a chaotic city where motorized rickshaws, overloaded buses and horse-drawn carts compete for the right of way on crowded streets.
But residents fled the well-to-do western neighborhood of Hayatabad, the jumping-off point for the military operation. Amid gracious villas, tanks clanked through the streets, trucks hauled artillery pieces and paramilitary troops built makeshift bunkers. Cobra attack helicopters thundered overhead. Authorities placed the outlying Bara district under curfew, closing shops and telling people to stay in their homes.
Military commanders said the operation could continue for several days.
Peshawar has always had the feel of a frontier outpost, rife with spies, smugglers and gunrunners. But forays by Bagh’s men and other militants had set the city on edge.
A week ago, militants raided a house and abducted about two dozen Christians attending a religious ceremony. Christians have lived in Peshawar for centuries, but are mistrusted by hard-line Islamists.
In outlying districts and villages, Taliban fighters also threatened video-store owners and barbers who cut men’s beards -- a practice the insurgents consider un-Islamic.
Peshawar is not only the region’s major population hub, but a highly symbolic military target. It is home to the 10th Army Corps, and the city center is dominated by a sprawling military cantonment. The Frontier Corps is headquartered in Peshawar as well, in the historic red-sandstone Bala Hisar fort on the city’s edge.
Even as authorities were proclaiming the day’s offensive a success, some pedestrians cast nervous glances as they rushed through the last of their errands. A stout woman in a blue burka who would give only her family nickname, “Mother of Haidar,” tugged her little boy behind her.
“My husband said to hurry home,” she said, “in case there is more trouble.”
Special correspondent Zulfiqar Ali in Hayatabad contributed to this report.