Drawing a Red Line Around the Taliban

On the front lines of the battle against terrorism, one need drive only 15 minutes from the military's headquarters to hear the militants' small-arms fire.

It is here, in the Bajaur district of northwest Pakistan, where the Pakistani military says it has drawn a line in the sand against militants who attack U.S. troops in Afghanistan, launch suicide attacks in Pakistan and recruit and train the next generation of al Qaeda faithful.

Bajaur may the smallest and most northerly district of Pakistan's seven Federally Administered Tribal Areas, but the military calls it the militants' "central hub," the area from which they launch attacks on both sides of the border and travel between each other's districts.

Military commanders say if they clear Bajaur of militants, they will have killed 65 percent of the militancy in Pakistan -- and taken a serious step toward subduing one of the most violent places on the planet. But if they fail, the number of attacks will only increase and the military's credibility will be seriously questioned by a skeptical United States.

"This has become the center of gravity for the complete militancy, a hub of all militant activity" in the region, Maj. Gen. Tariq Khan, the inspector general of the front-line Frontier Corps, told a group of reporters in Khan, the regional capital of Bajaur. "If they lose it, they lose almost everything."

The Pakistani military has spent the last seven weeks fighting in the Bajaur district, an area the size of greater New York City. Just this month, Khan said his troops have killed 500 to 1,000 insurgents, losing 36 troops.

The military escorted a group of reporters to the village of Tang Khatta, about 20 miles from the Afghanistan border. What is today little more than a pile of rocks surrounded by mud-walled homes was, until recently, a Taliban stronghold, the military said.

"It has been a very difficult fight because we are truly fighting against an invisible enemy," Col. Javid Baluch told ABC News while walking away from Tang Khatta, an area for which he is responsible. "They are taking the advantage of this terrain. When it is my first day -- it is maybe his 10th year. ... It's difficult to find out from where even the fire is coming. He has laid the booby troops, he has mined the area. He has prepared his caves and defenses" for years, he said.

The military underscored the importance of the battle in all the tribal areas this week when it released new data detailing the war on terror's impact on Pakistan.

Since July 2007 -- when troops fought militants holed up in a mosque in the center of Islamabad -- the Taliban, al Qaeda, and their affiliated groups have made this the most violent time in Pakistan since its partition, 61 years ago.

In the last 14 months, 88 suicide bombs have exploded around the country, killing 1,188 people and wounding 3,209, the military told reporters. That's an average of about three people dying and more than seven people being wounded every day since last July.

Asked whether the most recent suicide bombing -- a 1,300 pound bomb that destroyed the Marriott hotel in Islamabad, killing about 60 people -- was a reaction to the Bajaur operation, Khan didn't deny it.

"We always felt there would be reactions in the cities," he said. "I think they thought it would lead to some negotiations. Fortunately, it has not."

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