Pakistan forces move to defend Peshawar

Pakistani Forces Move In On Taliban

By Candace Rondeaux
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, June 29, 2008

KABUL, June 28 Hundreds of Pakistani military and police forces moved into the key northwestern city of Peshawar on Saturday to head off a possible attack by the Taliban and other Islamist insurgents, marking the first major military operation in Pakistan's fractured border region since a new government was elected in February.

The buildup of security forces in Peshawar, a provincial capital of 3 million about 30 miles from Afghanistan, and a nearby tribal area may signal a strategic shift in the country's struggle to quell extremist activity. Meanwhile, a top Taliban leader in Pakistan said he was suspending talks between his allies and the government.

The United States has been pushing the Pakistani government to move more aggressively against the insurgents, as residents and government officials in the region have expressed growing concern that Peshawar could soon fall under Taliban control. However, many in the region fear that a major clash between Pakistani security forces and the insurgents could spark a large-scale conflict that could engulf the entire North-West Frontier Province in violence.

The stepped-up activity in northwest Pakistan comes as fighting has grown across the border in Afghanistan. At least 36 troops of the U.S.-led NATO coalition have been killed in Afghanistan this month, including three U.S. soldiers and their Afghan interpreter who died Thursday in a bomb attack in the central-eastern province of Wardak. Residents who witnessed the attack said at least two of the soldiers were beheaded and their bodies left in a nearby field. A military official who spoke on the condition of anonymity confirmed that some of the bodies had been mutilated.

In Pakistan, paramilitary troops, soldiers and police began streaming into Peshawar and the Khyber Agency tribal area on Friday after several contingents of heavily armed Islamist fighters were seen massing near the city.

The military incursion occurred soon after the peace talks with the Islamabad government were suspended by Baitullah Mehsud, a Taliban leader. Mehsud, charged by the government with being behind the December assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, threatened to strike in other key cities.

"Peace cannot be brought with force and aggression. This will be very unfortunate for the Pakistani nation if fighting starts again," he told the Associated Press by telephone, after paramilitary troops lobbed mortar fire at several centers of insurgent activity in Khyber Agency.

Maj. Gen. Mohammed Alam Khattak, commander of the paramilitary Frontier Corps, said in a televised news conference Saturday that he expects the operation in the Peshawar area to last four to five days. Khattak said Pakistani security forces launched the strike at the request of the provincial government.

"This is an operation with the limited objectives of applying adequate force to increase the parameters of security in Peshawar and establish the government here where it has been challenged," Khattak said.

Residents in Khyber Agency said several army tanks and armored vehicles could be seen patrolling the streets of Bara, a main town in the area, as helicopters flew overhead. In recent months, clashes in Khyber Agency involving Taliban fighters have killed dozens of people.

Peshawar has witnessed periodic clashes with Taliban fighters and local warlords over the past year. Until now, however, Pakistani authorities have steered clear of direct or large-scale confrontations with the rising number of insurgents in the area.

The strategically located Khyber Agency is named after the famous Khyber Pass, for centuries a vital trade route leading to Central Asia, from India and Pakistan via Afghanistan. Today, it is the key route for military supplies to U.S. and NATO forces operating in Afghanistan.

Peshawar has long been a hothouse of militant extremism, playing host to several Islamic fundamentalist heavyweights, including at one time Osama bin Laden and his top lieutenant, Ayman al-Zawahiri. But within the past two years, lesser-known Islamist insurgents and local warlords have taken center stage. More than a half-dozen top warlords with Taliban links or sympathies operate openly in the seven tribal agencies, including the Khyber Agency.

In more recent months, extremist warlord Mangal Bagh Afridi has presented the greatest threat to security in the region. Leader of Lashkar-e-Islam, an increasingly powerful militant group, Bagh rose to power through his activism with local trade unions in the area.

Lashkar-e-Islam has essentially formed its own shadow government in the tribal agency. Despite an official government ban, the group operates its own pirate FM radio station as part of its effort to gain the sympathies of the local tribesmen, recruit new fighters and terrify their opponents. Residents and officials in the agency say Bagh's fighters now control a vast majority of the tribal agency.

Although Bagh has publicly denied any connections to the Pakistani Taliban or al-Qaeda, his efforts to impose strict Muslim codes in Bara mark him as one of the more ardent extremists operating in the region.

A senior Pakistani government official in Peshawar said authorities have been aware of Bagh's exploits but have refrained from moving against him. The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, said high-ranking military intelligence officials in Islamabad, the capital, had ordered authorities in Peshawar to allow Bagh to continue operating his shadow government.

"Mangal Bagh has been here for quite some time now, but it's a fact that we have tolerated him because we've been told to do so," the senior official said.

On Saturday, Pakistani security forces in the Sipah section of Bara destroyed Bagh's house, according to residents and local officials. Officials said Bagh had fled to a remote area northwest of Bara.

"It's like an undeclared curfew here now in Bara and other parts of Khyber Agency," said a resident of Bara, Ashraf ud-din Pirzada. "It is a very confusing situation for the local people. On the one hand, they don't like bloodshed. On the other hand, they want to get rid of this situation created by Mangal Bagh and his Lashkar-e-Islam."

Paramilitary troops also destroyed Lashkar-e-Islam's headquarters in the town of Shalobar near Bara. Shoaib Afridi, a Lashkar-e-Islam commander, was injured and another of the group's fighters was killed during the assault on the headquarters, according to local media.

Special correspondents Imtiaz Ali in Peshawar and Shaiq Hussain in Islamabad contributed to this report.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company