Pakistan Expands Taliban Offensive

Using gunship helicopters and heavy artillery in densely populated areas, the Pakistani military expanded its operations today, approaching the headquarters of the local Taliban in the country's volatile northwest.

The military campaign, although not officially announced, has extended into the Swat Valley, where the Taliban and the army already have fought each other twice. Although the provincial government says it wants to salvage a peace deal it signed with the Taliban in February, that deal appeared to be in tatters, and the army gave hints it will unleash a large campaign in Swat in the near future.

The fight in Swat will help determine how serious and able the Pakistani army is to defeat a Taliban entrenched within the population, and whether the government has the will to take on a well-funded and well-armed Taliban.

The military campaign expanded as Asif Ali Zardari made his first official trip to the United States as Pakistani president. During a joint meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Zardari promised that "we are up to the challenge, because we are the democracy, and democracy is the only cure to this challenge."

But the United States has expressed doubts about the government's will power and about the military's abilities. Many of the hundreds of thousands of residents who are fleeing the area also question the military's ability to defeat the Taliban. They do not support the militants, but many of the dozen people interviewed by ABC News today said they did not support the military either because it has caused heavy civilian casualties in the past.

"Ordinary people are leaving because they getting killed," said Noor Islam, speaking about the military campaign as he walked with his family from a district between Swat and Islamabad. "You never know where the bomb will fall."

The Pakistani government says it fears as many as half a million residents will be forced to leave their homes, pushed out by fear of the Taliban or fear of a heavy-handed military that has only recently taken up counterinsurgency training.

Fear Pervades Fleeing Swat Residents

Indeed, in the only battle in which the army fought and declared victory against the Taliban -- in the Bajaur tribal area -- it destroyed some 80 percent of the homes in the area, creating destruction that will take three years to rebuild, according to the local administrator in Bajaur. The provincial government opted for a peace deal over continuing a military operation, in part because it couldn't withstand political pressure caused by civilian casualties.

"It's history repeating itself," says Samina Ahmed, the Pakistan country director of the International Crisis Group. "This is not a military that is trained to do counterinsurgency or has the ability to understand how to deal with ... local dynamics on the ground."

The past two campaigns against the Taliban, both of which ended in the local government choosing to pursue peace deals, failed to dislodge the militants.

But this time, the military says it has more popular support following public incidents of the Taliban imposing particularly cruel justice, including the public whipping of a 17-year-old girl that was caught on camera. The military, this time, also promises to finish the job, and it recently asked the local government to evacuate the local population so it could enter the area with heavy weapons.

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