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Battles raging in remotest Pakistan

Rearmed militants are spreading through tribal areas, often seizing the offensive.

August 13, 2007|Laura King | Times Staff Writer

peshawar, pakistan -- As Pakistani forces press ahead with their most concerted campaign in years against Taliban and Al Qaeda militants in the dry, jagged hills of Pakistan's tribal belt, the insurgents have moved to establish new footholds in remote corners of the Texas-sized region along the border with Afghanistan.

The Islamic militants are seeking to spread their influence in areas previously untouched by fighting and are in some cases facilitating new alliances between outside groups and local insurgents, observers and officials say.

The insurgents are also increasingly employing heavy weapons and have made several brazen frontal attacks on army outposts that differed significantly from hit-and-run guerrilla-style skirmishes of the recent past.

"They've become better organized, more disciplined and more capable of mounting big attacks," said Rahimullah Yusufzai, an analyst based here in Peshawar, capital of Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province, which abuts the tribal belt.

The outcome of the Pakistani offensive will probably affect not only the course of the war in Afghanistan, where cross-border infiltration poses a serious threat to U.S. and NATO troops, but also U.S. relations with Pakistan, a key ally. President Pervez Musharraf, an army general who seized power eight years ago and is now beset by domestic political woes, has staked much of his remaining prestige on successfully confronting the insurgents.

On Sunday, Musharraf acknowledged that Islamic militants operate in his nation's tribal areas, where they provide support to fighters in Afghanistan. The unusually candid admission came at the end of a four-day tribal meeting in Kabul, the Afghan capital.

Last week, Musharraf hinted that he might use the fighting as justification for imposing a nationwide state of emergency -- a move that would give him broad powers that could be wielded against a growing democracy movement. He backed down after objections from both the international community and broad swaths of Pakistani society, but aides said the option was still open.

The violence has been centered in North Waziristan, the most volatile of the seven Pashtun tribal areas that are described as "federally administered" but are in fact beyond the writ of Pakistan's central government. Often-fierce clashes between Pakistani government forces and militants, coupled with suicide attacks around the country, have killed more than 250 people in the last month.

The fighting began in earnest after a 9-month-old truce between Taliban-backed tribal elders and Pakistan's military broke down last month. Under the cease-fire, Pakistani soldiers had remained in their bases and barracks, and the militants were supposed to have evicted foreign fighters and halted infiltration-style attacks into Afghanistan.

Instead, Al Qaeda and Taliban insurgents used the hiatus to rearm and reorganize themselves, said a major U.S. intelligence report, the National Intelligence Estimate.

The Bush administration demanded action from Musharraf, who ordered a large-scale offensive in the border zone, where 90,000 Pakistani troops are said to be operating.

After weeks of clashes, it is difficult to gauge whether Pakistani forces are making much headway. No high-level Taliban or Al Qaeda figures have been reported captured or killed, although Pakistan's government says dead combatants have included some lower-level Al Qaeda members.

Many of the armed confrontations take place in remote corners of the tribal lands, where Western journalists, and even most Pakistani outsiders, are not allowed to travel.

However, the army's own reports from the battle zone indicate the insurgents often seize the offensive, mounting sophisticated attacks on troop convoys and military checkpoints.

As in Iraq, the insurgents make almost daily use of suicide bombings, which sometimes target civilians but are more often aimed at military and police installations. Such attacks are often thwarted, but a lone assailant can also inflict disproportionate casualties.

In response, the army, too, is changing its tactics. Like North Atlantic Treaty Organization and U.S. troops fighting insurgents in Afghanistan, Pakistani forces have made greater use of air power, chasing down militants with helicopter gunships and sometimes staging air and artillery strikes rather than exposing troops to fire by sending them into battle on foot or in lightly armored vehicles.

As coalition forces have found in Afghanistan, however, airstrikes can be an imprecise weapon, carrying the risk of heavy civilian casualties when the fighters flee into populated areas. In several recent instances in which the government has reported that militants were killed in a strike, residents have said that civilians were among the dead and wounded.

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