- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 1, 2009

KHAR, Pakistan | Pakistan has beaten the Taliban in a major stronghold close to the Afghan border, is close to victory in another and expects to pacify most of the remaining tribal areas before the end of the year, commanders said Saturday.

The upbeat assessment of conditions in the arid, mountainous regions of Bajur and Mohmand follows international criticism of Pakistan for accepting a cease-fire with militants behind a bloody campaign in Swat Valley, just next to the tribal regions.

Many analysts also fear that growing political turmoil between the government and the opposition could distract attention from the fight against al Qaeda and the Taliban just as Washington wants more concerted action.

The United States and independent analysts have praised the offensive in Bajur, saying it has helped stem the passage of militants from Pakistan into Afghanistan, where violence against U.S. and NATO troops is running at its highest level since the U.S. invasion in 2001.

Pakistan’s tribal regions are believed to be a likely hiding place for Osama bin Laden and other al Qaeda leaders. Foreign governments fear extremists there could be plotting attacks on the West.

Maj. Gen. Tariq Khan, commander of the paramilitary Frontier Corps, said the insurgency had been “dismantled” in Bajur after six months of battles between well-armed militants and soldiers backed by tanks and helicopter gunships.

He said 1,600 militants had been killed and 150 civilians had died. Both figures were impossible to verify independently.

“Their resistance has broken down. We control the roads,” he told reporters flown to the northwestern region by helicopter. “They have lost.”

Col. Saif Ullah, commander in the neighboring region of Mohmand, said troops had repelled insurgents from most of the territory and it would soon be cleared.

“There are no more no-go areas. The militants are running away,” he said.

The army took reporters to witness a ceremony marking the victory over the militants conducted by tribal elders and military commanders close to a Bajur town that was the site of a major battle last week. Rows of shops selling household goods and furniture were destroyed, and tanks were parked amid the debris. Residents - most of whom fled before the battle - had not returned to the town in a valley leading to Afghanistan.

U.S. commanders say the Afghan province of Kunar, which borders Bajur, is still one of the most treacherous areas for their soldiers. The U.S. has earmarked it for some of the thousands of reinforcements being deployed to Afghanistan this year.

Gen. Khan said the defeated insurgents were mostly Afghans and Pakistanis, with some Uzbeks and a few Arabs caught in the early days of the offensive.

He said the army had failed to capture any insurgent leaders and that they had most likely fled into Afghanistan. Asked why, he said it was the job of special forces or intelligence agencies - not the army - to capture individual suspects.

Gen. Khan said the army had done its job of restoring government rule to the region, predicting military operations in the five of the seven tribal areas under his command “would be over by the end of the year.”


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