Monday, May 25, 2009
A Pakistani flag now flies over army troops dug in on a strategic ridge that until two days ago was held by the Taliban, a base where militants trained fighters, built tunnels and equipped caves with electricity and air vents.
The takeover of the highest Taliban stronghold in the Swat Valley by troops who stormed up its jagged, rubble-strewn slopes is evidence of the success of Pakistan's month-old army offensive. The action has been welcomed by the United States, which fears the nuclear-armed country is capitulating to the militants.
But much of the region still remains in the hands of the militants, including Buner — a district just 60 miles from the capital Islamabad and the focus of intense air and ground operations in recent weeks, according to witnesses and police officers who spoke to an Associated Press reporter in its main town Friday.
Several residents pointed to the mountains and warned that the Taliban were not far away.
Police were still too frightened to enter parts of Buner and the town of Dagar, 12 miles away, which the military said was "liberated" from the Taliban.
"We have been destroyed by the Taliban," said white-bearded Ayub Khan, as army trucks rumbled past a ruined market and a charred gas station where a suicide bomber had killed four soldiers in the early days of the battle.
The Obama administration has declared eliminating militant havens in Pakistan vital to its goals of defeating al-Qaida and winning the war in neighboring Afghanistan. U.S military officers say insurgents use Pakistan as a base to launch attacks over the frontier in Afghanistan.
But Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Schloesser, the top U.S. general in eastern Afghanistan, said there was evidence that insurgents were crossing into Pakistan, possibly to join the fight in Swat and other regions of the northwest where militants are holed up.
His comments come amid concern in Washington and Islamabad that the ongoing buildup of 21,000 additional U.S. forces in Afghanistan may end up pushing Taliban militants into Pakistan, further destabilizing its border region.
The Swat offensive has triggered an exodus of nearly 1.9 million refugees, more than 160,000 to sweltering camps, while the rest have been taken in by relatives, friends or in rented accommodation. Foreign countries and the United Nations are donating money to relieve the crisis.
Unlike other campaigns against Taliban and al-Qaida militants, the current offensive has broad political and public support in Pakistan, but some fear that could drain away if the refugees are seen to be neglected or the fighting drags on.
The army claims to have killed more than 1,000 militants, but said Friday the Taliban control the main town of Mingora; Piochar, a side-valley farther north that is a Taliban base; and several other districts. The army said those areas are increasingly surrounded by Pakistani troops.
"The noose is tightening around them," Maj. Gen. Saajad Ghani, the commander of operations in Upper Swat. "Their routes of escape have been cut off. It's just a question of time before the Taliban leadership is eliminated."
He and another senior commander estimated the operation could last another two or three months.
The army took more than a dozen reporters to the camp after flying them to the valley by helicopter from Islamabad. The scenic region that once attracted honeymooners and skiers has largely been off-limits to the media since fighting broke out.
While foreign governments are praising the Swat operation, they will be looking closely to see whether the country expands the offensive into other parts of the border region, especially Waziristan, which has been hit by repeated strikes by U.S missiles since last year.
Critics say the Pakistani army does not have the will or capability to completely take out the militants, given its close historical links to extremist groups it fostered for use as proxies in Kashmir, a region disputed with longtime foe India.
Previous operations in the northwest have resulted in widespread damage to property and significant civilian casualties.
The army has not given any tolls for civilians killed, but say there have been very few. Refugees have reported several examples. The militants have largely been unavailable for comment since the fighting began.
Flying over the valley, there was no major damage visible in several towns and cities — a sign, perhaps, that the military is making good on its promise not to use artillery and airstrikes in urban area or where civilians could be hiding.
The facilities at the Taliban camp on the ridge point to a disciplined and well-funded adversary, which is believed to have about 4,000 fighters.
At 7,500 feet, the complex was about the size of two soccer fields, with panoramic views of the valley on all sides.
Ghani said it was an operational, communications and training center for the Swat insurgency that had been there for several years.
"They wanted to retain it at all costs," he said at the base, where a dozen Pakistani army soldiers are dug in, wary the Taliban may return. "This was symbolic for them."
The heights were first bombed by jets and helicopters, leaving several large craters, before troops stormed it earlier this week.
Ghani said four soldiers had been wounded and that 200-300 fighters had been killed, but there was no evidence of this, such as graves or blood. Capt. Kamal Butt, who led the final assault, said there were no bodies when he arrived, suggesting the insurgents had fled. There was no explanation of where the bodies might have gone.
The cave mouths and bunkers were made with brick walls several feet thick and topped with large tree trunks, dirt and leaves. Flies buzzed in and out of the cave housing the kitchen, outside of which stood a bullet-scarred wheelbarrow filled with lentils.
The caves and tunnels had electricity and rudimentary ventilation systems. A system of pipes and tanks ensured those staying at the camp had water from several faucets.
Officers laid out text books belonging to pupils who, according to the headings in them, underwent guerrilla training. One was dated May 2, 2009. They said many of the students were forced to attend. They also showed reporters three sacks of chemicals used for making bombs, wires and detonators.
The offensive was launched after the militants abandoned a peace deal widely criticized in the West and moved into Buner. Coupled with a video showing the insurgents whipping a women, the advance seems to have galvanized politicians, the media and members of the public into supporting the war.
"Fighting an insurgency in your own country is hell," said Col. Abdul Rehman. "But when the whole country is behind you, you feel better."