Fighting escalates in Pakistan's north
Army shells militants in border region
By Griff Witte and Kamran Khan, Washington Post | July 19, 2007
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- Pakistan expanded operations against extremist fighters yesterday and the military began shelling targets in a restive tribal area bordering Afghanistan following an insurgent assault that killed 17 troops.
The fighting in North Waziristan, an area where Al Qaeda leadership is believed to be active, went on late into the night, residents said. A local official confirmed that at least six artillery explosions were heard in the hills that surround Miram Shah, the region's main town. It was not immediately clear who or what had been targeted.
The shelling occurred during a period of deep turmoil in Pakistan, with radical fighters carrying out a string of deadly attacks after a government raid against a mosque in Islamabad last week.
On Sunday, Taliban fighters in North Waziristan renounced a controversial peace pact that had held for 10 months and had prevented the military from carrying out operations in the area. The pact had angered US officials, who considered it a primary reason why Al Qaeda was able to reorganize.
Pakistani officials have tried to revive the accord, but those efforts appeared to break down yesterday as the violence in North Waziristan escalated.
Early yesterday morning, Taliban fighters launched a well coordinated strike against a group of soldiers, killing 17 and wounding more than a dozen. The fighters first hit the troops with a roadside bomb, then with an ambush. In a separate attack in North Waziristan, one soldier and six civilians were injured. Clashes later in the day left five Taliban fighters dead, the military said.
More than 100 people, most of them security forces, have been killed in attacks in recent days. Military officials vowed yesterday to strike back.
"There will now be a full-scale military action against Taliban hide-outs in the entire tribal areas," a Pakistani brigadier general said on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the record.
A second brigadier general, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the Pakistani Army was receiving help from the US military in tracking the fighters, including aerial surveillance from US-supplied drones.
The officials added that the government would still attempt to negotiate with relatively moderate tribal leaders in hopes of cleaving them from hard-core militants. A jirga, or assembly, was planned for today with that goal in mind.
The United States has long been pushing Pakistan's president, Pervez Musharraf, to do more to counter the extremist threat. A US intelligence estimate released Tuesday highlighted Pakistan's shortcomings, noting that Al Qaeda has been able to reestablish itself in the ungoverned areas of northwestern Pakistan.
"President Musharraf attempted to engage in . . . carrot diplomacy with tribal leaders in the tribal areas, and it didn't work," White House spokesman Tony Snow said yesterday. "So what you have to do when something doesn't work is you have to fix it, and that's what's going on now."
Violence has soared this year in neighboring Afghanistan, while more parts of northwestern Pakistan have fallen under the Taliban's sway.
"The backyard of the Afghanistan conflict is Pakistan," said Ayaz Amir, a leading political commentator. "And Pakistan will be drawn in more and more. Pakistan's become like Cambodia during the war in Vietnam."
The spillover has not been limited to the remote border regions of the northwest. The wide avenues of normally sedate Islamabad were the scene of a bombing Tuesday night targeting members of Pakistan's largest opposition group, who had gathered for an anti-Musharraf rally. At least 15 people were killed.
The government said extremists were to blame. But leaders of the Pakistan People's Party continued to suggest yesterday that the attack might have been the work of the country's powerful intelligence agencies.