Cease-fire by Pakistan in attacks on militants

Posted in Terrorism , Pakistan | 01-Sep-08 | Author: Jane Perlez and Pir Zubair Sha| Source: International Herald Tribune

A woman, displaced by fighting in Pakistan's tribal areas, carried her child in a makeshift medical clinic in Mardan.

PESHAWAR, Pakistan: The Pakistani military, which has been criticized by Washington for not pushing hard enough against Taliban militants, has used jet fighters and helicopter gunships in the past three weeks to strike at insurgents who pour over the border to attack American forces in Afghanistan.

A military official involved in the operation said the air assaults had resulted in more than 400 Taliban casualties in Bajaur, an area of the tribal region where Al Qaeda and the Taliban have forged close ties, and had forced the militants to retreat from villages they controlled. It was difficult to verify the number of casualties independently.

But as a result of the air campaign, more than 200,000 civilians have fled their homes, according to the World Health Organization and Unicef, which are providing assistance in the area. Many of the refugees, who are now squatting in makeshift camps or bunking with extended families, are angry at the deaths of relatives and the destruction of property. More than 40,000 people from Bajaur are now refugees in Afghanistan, the International Committee of the Red Cross said.

The airstrikes, in addition to a monthlong air and ground offensive by the Pakistani Army in nearby Swat, a scenic area in the North-West Frontier Province, signified the most sustained campaign by the Pakistani military after months of intense pressure by the Bush administration to do more against the insurgents.

But on Saturday night, the Pakistani government declared a cease-fire in the area for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which begins Wednesday. The deal was arranged after the electorally important Jamiat ulema-e-Islami, a religious party, and legislators from the tribal areas said they would support Asif Ali Zardari for president in return for an end to the airstrikes.

Zardari, the widower of Benazir Bhutto and the leader of the Pakistan People's Party, has become the leading candidate for president in the electoral college vote on Sept. 6.

The cease-fire prompted concerns that whatever gains had been made against militants in the region would be squandered. Khalid Aziz, a former chief secretary of the North-West Frontier Province, said the Taliban would use the opportunity to regroup.

"Some communities have risen up against the militants, and the government has to capitalize on this, has to prop them up," he said. "They haven't done it."

Although it is unclear whether the military's Bajaur operation was designed specifically to assist Washington, the airstrikes dovetailed with U.S. interests.

The Bush administration has said that the ability of Al Qaeda and the Taliban to operate there, as well as in other areas of the tribal belt, gives them license to plot attacks against the United States. In addition, the militants, operating with impunity from safe havens like Bajaur, a 650-square-kilometer, or 250-square-mile, pocket of mountains and narrow valleys on the northern edge of the tribal area, have struck with mounting ferocity at U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.

In that context, the new Pakistani Army chief, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, was invited to a secret meeting with the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, on an aircraft carrier in the Arabian Sea last week.

It was their fifth encounter since Kayani took over as army chief from Pervez Musharraf in November. The session at sea appears to have been more congenial than the confrontation in Islamabad in July, when Mullen told the Pakistanis that Washington had evidence of the involvement of its powerful spy agency, Inter Services Intelligence, in the bombing of the Indian Embassy in Kabul.

The Pakistani military has met fierce resistance from the militants in Bajaur. Colonel Shahbaz Rasul of the Frontier Corps, the paramilitary force leading the army operations there, said more than 400 Taliban had been killed by airstrikes, though an official with access to Inter Services Intelligence data said an estimated 200 Taliban had been killed.

Rasul said that the Taliban fighters were better paid than his soldiers and that they were well motivated. He said the Taliban force numbered 2,300 men under four commanders. The largest group of about 1,200 fought under Faqir Mohammad, deputy chief of the umbrella group Tehrik-i-Taliban, he said.

There were reports that Faqir, reputed to run the most disciplined Taliban force in Bajaur, had been killed during the early days of the airstrikes. But Faqir gave a subsequent radio interview saying he had survived by jumping out of his van before a bomb hit it, killing 11 of his fighters.

The Frontier Corps has remained inside its fort at Khar, the capital of Bajaur, since the airstrikes began, Rasul said. That is largely because the corps was bloodied during three days of heavy fighting in early August, when soldiers tried to take back a post at Loe Sam from the Taliban. The village is at a strategic junction to Afghanistan, and about 10 miles from Damadola, where a U.S. airstrike in January 2006 failed to kill Ayman al-Zawahari, the Qaeda deputy.

In the fighting to recapture Loe Sam, 29 soldiers were killed, Colonel Rasul said. After three attempts using 400 men to take the post, the Frontier Corps had to retreat back along the 16-mile road from Loe Sam to Khar.

"The miscreants came in full force in numbers of men and sophistication of equipment," he said of the surprising strength of the Taliban around Loe Sam. The Pakistani army uses "miscreants" to describe the Taliban.

Meanwhile, many Pakistanis in the North-West Frontier Province and the tribal belt said they were pleased the government was taking firm action against the Taliban, who are now threatening the capital of the province, Peshawar, and have taken over some of the towns around it.

But the airstrikes were criticized for being indiscriminate. The assault had not killed any known leaders of the Taliban in Bajaur, said Aftab Khan Sherpao, a former interior minister, whose constituency is close to Bajaur. The displaced civilians blamed the government for the hardships in the camps and for the destruction of their homes.

Another legislator, Muneer Orekzai, said: "It's not justice to kill 5 Taliban and 95 civilians. Everyone knows who the militants are in every village. We want a targeted operation with the army going on search-and-destroy operations."

In Salarzai, a cluster of villages in the northern part of Bajaur, local people had organized themselves against the Taliban, Jalal Uddin, a tribal leader, said in a telephone interview.

"People are fed up with the Taliban," Uddin said.

"People are seeing the government fighting the Taliban so they are encouraged," he said, adding that it was disappointing that none of the Taliban leaders had been killed.

As news of the government cease-fire spread over the weekend, there were indications that many of the displaced in the camps would return home. But some said they were worried about the absence of government ground forces.

"If we go back now, no one is in charge, neither the militants or the government," said Maroof Shah, a shopkeeper from Loe Sam who brought an extended family of 23 on the trek out of Bajaur to escape the bombing.