The Pakistani army launched an air attack Tuesday and began deploying ground troops against Taliban bases near Islamabad, the nation’s capital.
The offensive appeared to be a broadening of the state’s moves against militants, many of whom have become increasingly brash since reaching a controversial peace deal this year largely on their terms.
Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, a military spokesman, told reporters in Rawalpindi that army and Frontier Corps paramilitary units launched the operation in Buner district, building on a several-day offensive in the region. Abbas said 450 to 500 Taliban fighters are believed to be active in Buner.
“The government asked them to leave the district several times but they paid no heed,” Abbas said. “The operation in Buner aims to eliminate militants who pretended to leave the area.”
Explosions were heard as army helicopter gunships bombed militant strongholds, and Taliban fighters reportedly blew up the main bridge in Buner’s Ambala area in retaliation. Witness reports suggested that some Taliban militants fired back at helicopters with heavy machine guns. Buner officials said an indefinite curfew was imposed.
Well-armed Taliban militants entered Buner from their stronghold in neighboring Swat Valley this month, setting up checkpoints, ordering residents to follow strict Islamic rules and patrolling the area. They also reportedly took over Buner’s Pir Baba police station, holding 43 paramilitary fighters and 17 policemen hostage, and abducted boys to recruit into Taliban ranks. Buner is about 60 miles from Islamabad.
This bid to boost the militants’ influence -- coming fast on the heels of a peace deal in Swat that granted them authority to impose Sharia, or Islamic law, on the population -- has raised alarm across Pakistan and around the world. There is fear that their expansion could further undercut the state’s authority in this nuclear-armed nation.
The army’s attack Tuesday follows several days of military activity in Dir, another nearby district that has witnessed an influx of Taliban fighters from Swat.
Abbas said the army successfully cleared Dir of fighters in an operation that left as many as 75 militants and 10 troops dead. By Tuesday, however, as many as 30,000 residents wary of getting caught in the crossfire reportedly had fled Dir for the regional capital of Peshawar and nearby towns.
Swat, Buner and Dir are part of the Malakand division of the North-West Frontier Province, along the border with Afghanistan. President Asif Ali Zardari two weeks ago sanctioned the Sharia peace deal in the region with radical cleric Sufi Mohammed. Supporters argued that the move would reduce violence, as militants were expected to disarm. Critics said the deal was a sellout that would embolden the extremists.
Analysts said some suspect that the United States put pressure on Zardari to mount the offensive. Also, concern is growing domestically that the Taliban will not stop fighting.
“No one likes the authority of their state to be challenged by a lot of people that could lead to anarchy,” said Tasneem Noorani, a former Interior Minister. Pakistanis “don’t necessarily have a lot of love lost for Zardari, but they’re perturbed that after [the Taliban] saw its demands achieved, they continued to mount a challenge.”
The government also bears enormous responsibility for the recent developments in the region, said Shireen Mazari, a defense analyst. If it hadn’t abdicated its basic responsibility to maintain security for its citizens in the frontier and tribal areas, the Taliban and other militant groups wouldn’t have been able to move into the vacuum, she said.
Pakistan’s leaders barely venture into the areas in question, she said.
“At the end of the day, the army can only do tactical operations. Ultimately, there must be a political solution.”
Ali is a special correspondent.
Special correspondent Mubashir Zaidi in Islamabad contributed to this report.