Sunday, November 16, 2008

On the front line in war on Pakistan's Taliban: Jason Burke

On the front line in war on Pakistan's Taliban
High in the mountainous north west provinces of Pakistan, government forces are waging a bitter war against Taliban militants who have made the region a stronghold. As US predator drones criss-cross the sky overhead, troops on the ground endure a daily confrontation with suicide bomber attacks, mortar fire and the piercing cold

Jason Burke, Sunday November 16 2008

Ali Hussein, a sergeant in the Sindh Regiment of the Pakistani Army, peers over the lip of his sandbagged machinegun pit to see the following: a muddy patch of farmland divided into a chaos of individual fields, a row of slender birch trees, a dry river valley and, almost invisible among the trees half a mile away, a village called Khusar. Over his head, shells screech through the air towards its half-dozen mud-walled houses.

A rocket-propelled grenade cracks out in solitary, futile response, leaving a trail of spiralling smoke in the chill dawn air. There is the continual crackle of small-arms fire, the distant thud of a mortar.

Khusar lies in Bajaur, a 500-square- mile jumble of valleys and hills high on Pakistan's north-western border with Afghanistan. Few outside Pakistan had heard of Bajaur until recently. But now the fighting here - the biggest single clash of conventional forces and Islamic militants anywhere - is being watched closely around the globe.

The battle of Bajaur has huge local and international implications. Locally, it is a critical test for the new Pakistani civilian government of Asif Ali Zardari, the controversial widower of Benazir Bhutto. The recent bombing of the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad is thought to be a response to the Bajaur offensive. Regionally, the battle is a chance for the Pakistani Army to rebut allegations that it is dragging its feet in the fight against international extremism. Internationally, the fight is crucial for the 40-nation coalition fighting in Afghanistan. Not only will its result determine who controls the supply route that crosses the Khyber Pass just to its south - where militants hijacked a 60-vehicle Nato convoy last week - but it will also show if the semi-autonomous 'tribal agencies' that line the mountainous zones on the Pakistan side of the frontier can be stabilised. It is there that al-Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban leadership are hiding. Peace in Afghanistan will remain a distant prospect until the frontier is calmed.

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