- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 16, 2009

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — President Obama’s special envoy to Pakistan praised the country’s progress in taking back key territory from the Taliban, saying on Sunday it had given U.S.-Pakistan relations enough “breathing room” to shift to other key issues such as energy and economic development.

Richard Holbrooke said he hoped to visit the Swat Valley, where hundreds of thousands of refugees have begun to return after the military ended Taliban control of the area, adding that Pakistan was safer with the reported death of the militants’ leader, Baitullah Mehsud, in a CIA missile strike Aug. 5.

The security improvement prompted the United States to move to address areas for which Pakistan has been pushing hard: assistance for its cash-strapped economy and projects to solve an energy crisis in which millions go without electricity every day.

“We shifted the focus deliberately and consciously today to the issue that every Pakistani tells me is on their minds more than any other — economy and, above all, energy,” Mr. Holbrooke told a news briefing Sunday. “We are concerned with more than just the western tribal areas, although those remain a central concern.”

He gave no details but said projects would be announced later.

Washington long had wanted Pakistan to crack down on militants with strongholds along its western border with Afghanistan, where the Pakistani Taliban are believed to shelter al Qaeda terrorist leaders and help plan attacks on U.S. troops across the border.

The Swat offensive marked a turn in Pakistan’s anti-terrorism fight in part because the Taliban takeover of the alpine enclave, which once boasted Pakistan’s only ski resort, had become a symbol of the extremists’ expansion. Government forces have been winding down their three-month offensive there but still face pockets of militant resistance and violence.

Pakistan for years alternated military assaults with intermittent peace deals with various Pakistani Taliban factions, but in May the military launched its largest anti-militant operation in years soon after the Taliban broke a peace deal in Swat and expanded into Buner district, less than 60 miles from Islamabad, the capital.

Mr. Holbrooke said the military operation in Swat, Buner and surrounding areas marked considerable progress.

“We are very impressed with their success so far,” he said. “There is some breathing room now.”

Washington reportedly has been eager for Pakistan to capitalize on the momentum by launching a ground offensive in the Taliban-controlled tribal areas west of Swat, including Mehsud’s stronghold of Waziristan. However, Mr. Holbrooke said Sunday, the timing was up to the Pakistani military, which has been launching aerial assaults against militant bases near the border.

“That is a decision for the Pakistan government to make and to make alone,” he said. “We’re not going to come here to give tactical advice to the Pakistan army. They can take care of their problems themselves.”

Mr. Holbrooke said earlier that the U.S. planned to provide more helicopters and other equipment such as night-vision goggles to the Pakistani military to aid the fight. He also said that Pakistan’s shifting of its military focus from its eastern border near India westward to its border with Afghanistan was a positive sign.

In Swat on Sunday, residents in several different areas woke up to find a total of 18 bodies lying in the streets. One body was in the main town of Mingora, seven in Kanju town and the rest in four other villages. Local police would not comment on the bodies, but residents interviewed on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation said they recognized some of the men as militants loyal to local Taliban commander Maulana Fazlullah.

Maj. Nasir Khan of army’s Swat Media Center said the military had nothing to do with the deaths and theorized that local residents who suffered under the Taliban’s harsh rule — in which they banned music, burned down girls’ schools and killed anyone who resisted their harsh interpretation of Islamic law — were taking revenge.

“It could be outcome of personal enmities in those areas,” he said.

Also Sunday, a government statement said a group of 41 militants in the Lower Dir district, west of Swat, had surrendered to the government. The announcement came after Interior Minister Rehman Malik urged Taliban followers Friday to defect and “say goodbye to terrorism and start a new life.”

The call was seen as a sign the government is seeking to exploit any potential weaknesses in the militant movement since Mehsud’s reported death.

Pakistan has said troops will remain in Swat until the fighters of Fazlullah — a notorious Taliban leader whose thousands of followers are blamed for the violence — are eliminated. Although the military says it has killed or captured a number of Fazlullah’s commanders, he has evaded capture.

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