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.
"People are so scared and there is so much of fear because of the Taliban, people can't even eat in peace," said Ibrahim Shah, a resident of Buner who had fled to Islamabad.
The local government has been creating temporary camps for the internally displaced people, but government officials admit they only have $8,000 set aside for funding the camps. Provincial government officials say they have received so little economic assistance from the federal government, they have had to move much of their development budget to security budget.
The camps themselves threaten to become humanitarian disasters. Two months ago, residents of a camp for residents of Bajaur rioted, calling the conditions they were living in "criminal."
Today, during an ABC News visit to a small camp in Islamabad, residents said they had no food, no electricity, no running water and no way to earn money.
"The government isn't helping," one member of the camp said.
He declined to give his name, but said he had seven children and took two days to travel from Buner to the capital.
"The Taliban and the government -- I curse them both," he said.
That lack of services threatens to erode the popular support for the military operations. Last week, Amnesty International said people from the area were so scared, many had left the bodies of victims lying in fields.
"Pakistan is now facing a serious displacement crisis," said Sam Zarifi, Amnesty International's Asia-Pacific director. "While the politicians in Islamabad and Washington talk about geopolitics, people in these quiet villages have their lives shattered."
But the military says it is limited in its ability to avoid civilian casualties because the Taliban uses residents as human shields.
The military campaign comes following a crescendo of criticism of a Taliban surge toward Islamabad. Early last month, the Taliban moved into Buner, south of Swat, but neither the military nor the government spoke out until a few weeks later. Around the same time, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told Congress that Pakistan was "abdicating" to the Taliban and presented a "mortal threat" to world security.
The operation began in Lower Dir and Buner early last week and extended to Swat only in the last two days. Residents of the district next to Buner say that Baitullah Mehsud, the leader of the Taliban movement in Pakistan, came through their area into Buner twice in the last few months, presumably to recruit local Taliban.
Buner itself had managed to resist the Taliban until recently. Local community groups withstood attempts by militants to infiltrate the area, but finally they fell in early May.
"The Taliban did not have a central place here," one resident said today. "They came from Swat and other places. The people of Buner showed courage and told the government that we don't their need help and didn't allow them here. But commissioner Javed let them loose on us."
The resident was referring to the top administrator in the area, Syed Mohammad Javed, who was fired from his job early last week, accused of helping the Taliban gain strength and of helping undercut the government's ability to control the Taliban under the peace deal.
In Swat, previous failures to dislodge the Taliban do not seem to have limited the military's intelligence capabilities. In at least eight distinct occasions, helicopter gunships destroyed suicide car bombs, thanks to precise intelligence provided by the InterServices Intelligence, or ISI, according to a military official in the area.