Fierce Combat Continues in Tribal Pakistan

Pakistani frontier corpsmen, backed by helicopter gunships, killed at least 35 militants in the last 24 hours as some of the year's fiercest combat in the Northwest Frontier continued into its fourth week.

Among the 25 killed in the Bajour agency, where the local Taliban have strong links with al Qaeda, were "top level" Taliban commanders and foreign fighters from Uzbekistan and Chechnya, according to military sources.

Frontier corpsmen engaged a militant "hideout" using helicopters and artillery on Wednesday morning, said Maj. Murad, a spokesman for Pakistan's army.

The fighting in Bajour came just hours after militants tried to storm the Tiarza checkpoint in South Waziristan, where the Taliban also has a close relationship with al Qaeda. Security forces repelled the attack and killed 11 militants, Murad said.

Pakistan's fight against the Taliban in the restive tribal areas comes as some in the U.S. fear that political instability is distracting from the military campaign. The current government came to power in February in part by promising to make peace in the Northwest Frontier, including by signing peace deals with the militants.

But in the last month the Frontier Corps, the underfunded front-line troops based in the northwest, began an operation against militants in both Bajour and Swat that has not stopped. And the government has increased its rhetorical fight against the militants.

On Monday the de facto interior minister "banned" the Taliban. The move, a largely ceremonial one, freezes the Taliban's bank accounts and imposes a 10-year jail sentence on anyone who supports them financially.

The day before, the government brushed aside an offer by the Taliban to surrender in order to hold peace talks. Rehman Malik, the prime minister's advisor on interior affairs, told reporters the government wouldn't talk with the Taliban until it gave up its weapons and renounced a campaign that killed almost 100 people in 4 suicide bombings last week.

"The war on terror cannot be won on defensive. We have to take the battle to the doorsteps of the extremists," Pakistan's Prime Minister, Yusuf Gilani, said last week. "We are not being attacked by any outside military or a known army. Our enemy lurks silently within our society. This is our own war."

It is a battle that the U.S. wants the Pakistani military and government to continue. The Pakistani public has not been convinced that the fight was in their best interests. Former President Pervez Musharraf became unpopular in part because he was seen as fighting the U.S.' war in the tribal areas.

But that sentiment may be changing, analysts say.

Many Pakistanis interviewed last week after an attack on a hospital and the country's largest ammunition factory - a double suicide attack that killed 70 workers – expressed anger at the Taliban instead of at the government's policies.

"What kind of Islam is this?" asked one man in Dera Ismail Khan as he stood in the rubble of an emergency room there, blown to bits by a suicide bomber.

"There is a very strong wave and sentiment against the militants," says retired Gen. Talat Masood, a former defense secretary. "So I hope there will be a mass mobilization, and it is the function of the present political leadership to really harness the sentiment against the militants."

The military needs the politicians to back a military campaign if it will successfully dislodge the militants from the Northwest. That is not easy when the 5-month old ruling coalition collapses over allegations of broken promises, as it did this week.

"What the military is seeking is a national consensus on what to do, and what role the civilian and the military will play in this war against the militants," says Shuja Nawaz, author of "Crossed Swords: Pakistan, Its Army, and the Wars Within."

"Without that concept and without widespread support for it, anything that the military does is not going to be very useful," said Nawaz.

And the military is also struggling to create a viable fighting force in the northwest. Pictures of frontier corpsmen in Bajour show young men wearing old helmets, carrying old guns with sandals on their feet. They are often outgunned, outmanned, and out motivated when they fight the militants. They need a vast overhaul that will cost them tens of million of dollars.

"They will obviously need to get much more assistance from the United States -- not just economically, but militarily, and they therefore need to work with the military to identify its needs and to set very clear targets with the military to retrain and re-equip itself and to improve its capacity for the fight against the militants," Nawaz says.

"If it is left to business as usual,if this issue is not tackled, the militants will gain the upper hand," Nawaz said, "and then it will be a much longer, and a much more expensive fight."

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