Pakistan pledges fight to the death

Posted in Pakistan | 10-Jan-09 | Author: Jane Corbin| Source: BBC

"No permission is required - just open fire on anything that moves," came the order from Maj Gen Tarik Khan, commander of Pakistan's Frontier Corps.

We were sheltering in a traditional mud-walled compound in in the tribal area of Bajaur on the border with Afghanistan.

His men had seized it from militants the day before, after fierce hand-to-hand fighting.

Bursts of fire still rang out and shell cases smoked underfoot as I explored the network of tunnels connecting these compounds, some stretching for several kilometres underground.

The Taleban and al-Qaeda had dug in here over the years, threatening the local tribes and becoming the effective power in the land.

The Pakistani government in the past has been accused of not being committed to the US-led "war on terror" because offensives turned into truces before the job was finished.

But now the new civilian government led by President Asif Ali Zardari - whose wife, Benazir Bhutto, was killed by extremists a year ago - has declared that this time it is a fight to the death.

"If they do not lay down their arms, we will kill them," declared Gen Khan. "There is no other way to bring this to a close."

Sanctuary

Pakistan's commitment to the fight against terrorism affects many of us - the majority of serious terror plots in the UK lead back in some way to Pakistan, which has also become a launch pad for the growing insurgency in neighbouring Afghanistan.

"It's a life and death struggle for Pakistan as well as Afghanistan," Brig Gen Mark Milley told me as we flew in a US army helicopter along the Afghan side of the border just a few miles away.

The scenery below was spectacular, rugged and wild, and clearly no barrier to the insurgents.

"The terrain and the culture lends itself to multiple groups, amongst them al-Qaeda, who have established a sanctuary here," explained Gen Milley.

He has lost 16 men to well-trained and motivated insurgents in the past few months alone.

Pakistan is under intense international pressure to destroy the militants who established a safe haven and training camps after fleeing Afghanistan in the wake of the 9/11 attacks in the US.

That pressure has increased following the attacks in Mumbai, which India blames on a Pakistan-based Kashmiri group.

Both generals explained to me that the strategy now is to trap the militants between the hammer of the Pakistani army's offensive in the tribal areas and the anvil of US forces ranged on the other side of the border.

Suicide bombers

This winter could be decisive in preventing the insurgents retreating back into the tribal areas - but only if the Pakistani army and government hold firm.

But a local Taleban leader who operates from the Pakistan side of the border was defiant.

"Pakistani and Afghan soldiers will die," he said. "We Muslims are not disabled and this war is not going to end."

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