Taliban steps up attacks in Pakistan's tribal belt


TALIBAN MILITANTS backed by al-Qaeda trainers are stepping up a campaign of violent destabilisation across Pakistan’s tribal belt to divert forces from the battle in the Swat valley, a senior Pakistani commander said yesterday.

“They are trying [to spread the fighting], but it’s not significant enough for us to divert our attention,” said Maj Gen Tariq Khan, commander of the 50,000-strong Frontier Corps, at his Peshawar headquarters.

The Taliban have launched suicide attacks and heavy assaults on security installations in the tribal belt along the Afghan border in recent days.

On Sunday, 200 militants stormed an outpost in Mohmand tribal agency, southeast of Swat, triggering a gun battle which killed 25 militants and wounded 11 corps soldiers, Maj Gen Khan said.

Moments later, a phone call brought news of another attack. A suicide bomber had just rammed his car into a checkpost at Dara Adam Khel, a tribal town 15 miles away. Two corps troops and six civilians, including a six-year-old girl, were killed, police said.

The Taliban were being trained by foreign mercenaries linked to al-Qaeda, Maj Gen Khan said. “They are experts in IEDs [roadside bombs often described as improvised explosive devices], sniper fire and explosives. Mostly Tajiks and Uzbeks, basically. They get paid for their expertise.”

Intelligence from the Mohmand battle indicated the presence of 100 Mehsud and Wazir fighters from South Waziristan, where the Taliban warlord Baitullah Mehsud holds sway, Maj Gen Khan said. “He has access to people, funds and resources, and [the local groups] want him to dish it out. That’s his importance,” he said.

Mehsud territory in south Waziristan has become a stronghold of foreign fighters, particularly ethnic Uzbeks from the al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, led by radical cleric Tahir Yuldashev. According to Pakistani intelligence, Arab fighters, in contrast, are concentrated in an area controlled by a rival commander, Maulvi Nazir Ahmed.

Both groups are the focus of American attention. On Sunday, Gen David Petraeus, head of US Central Command, said al-Qaeda’s leadership was located in Pakistan. Yesterday, the New York Timesreported that the US had carried out 16 drone strikes this year and 36 in 2008, the bulk of them in north and south Waziristan.

The latest such strike, on Saturday night, hit Mehsud’s network, killing at least six people.

The army is likely to turn its attention to Mehsud in south Waziristan after the Swat operation. Maj Gen Khan said: “We will have to deal with north and south Waziristan if we want to have a lasting effect on the militants.”

Khan, a well regarded commander with several years’ experience leading the fight in the tribal areas, spoke at a redbrick 18th-century British fort that serves as corp’s headquarters. For the past two weeks, he has commanded operations in Buner, 97 km (60 miles) northwest of Islamabad, where a Taliban advance sparked American alarm and triggered a concerted Pakistani counteroffensive.

“We were caught by surprise,” he admitted, describing how he shifted forces from the tribal belt and conducted rushed reconnaissance of an area where he never imagined having to fight.

Maj Gen Khan described how the Taliban operate in groups of 30 to 40, split into groups of five, each with a radio. As they advance on security forces’ positions, firing rocket-propelled grenades, they try to distract soldiers with surrender negotiations until they swarm the position “like a pack of wolves”, he said.

Pakistan’s interior minister said yesterday that more than 700 fighters had been killed in Swat, Buner and Dir. The figure could not be confirmed.

The operations have sparked a humanitarian crisis. The UN said more than 360,000 people had registered for relief aid in Mardan and Swabi districts, south of Swat, and more were expected.

The corps is playing a secondary role in the Swat valley, where the fighting is commanded by the regular army. In the main town, Mingora, the Taliban have dug into defensive positions and mined bridges and roads. But Khan said he did not expect to see a major street battle in the town.

“I don’t think the Taliban are going to fight once they see a consolidated effort against them. Their effort at getting into Mingora is to melt into the crowd, to move out with the exodus of refugees,” he said. He predicted that a hard core of fighters would retreat into remote valleys north of Mingora and sue for peace.

“They will get into the caves and seek a means to a negotiated settlement . . . I don’t think they are capable of a hardcore fight.” – ( Guardianservice)