Pakistan Airdrops Troops to Fight Taliban

The Pakistani military dropped army soldiers from helicopters close to the Taliban's main stronghold today, reaching deeper into the Swat Valley four days after the government declared war within its own borders.

The military offensive, which is still relying mostly on air power, has forced some 800,000 residents across three districts to flee their homes, bringing the total number of Pakistanis displaced by fights against the Taliban to 1.3 million since August -- the largest movement of people in South Asia since Pakistan split from India in 1947.

Today the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) flew a 747 jet into Islamabad with 120 tons of relief supplies and the World Food Programme doubled the amount of emergency food it said was needed, signs that Pakistan is facing a massive humanitarian crisis.

That crisis is not simply present in the IDP camps south of the fighting; it is worse in the Swat Valley itself, where hundreds of thousands of residents have failed to get out. For those people, there is no electricity, food, or relief in any way, and to walk in the streets is to risk being shot by the army.

In many ways the mass exodus is necessary if Pakistan is going to do what the U.S., its neighbors, and the rest of the world wants it to do -- defeat the Taliban where they have grown so strong: to within a few hours of the capital, Islamabad.

The Pakistani military does not fight counterinsurgencies with precision or nuance -- it uses U.S.-made Cobra helicopters and F-16s, and has a history of destroying homes and markets in order to defeat the militants living inside of them.

And so the military needs the civilians to leave before it can engage with the hard-core Taliban militants, who are embedded into the local population.

"It would be unwise to do that before the population left," Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, the chief spokesman for the Pakistani military, told reporters today.

The army enjoys popular support for its operation right now. If it caused too many civilian casualties, it risks losing that support.

Military officials hinted that the civilians still stuck in the valley would be able to leave in the coming days, when a curfew used to keep them (and the Taliban) off the streets would be lifted.

751 Militants Killed, But No Foreign Fighters of "High Value"

In total 751 militants and 29 soldiers have been killed, according to the army, since the operation began. The numbers are impossible to verify. No high value foreign fighters have been discovered in Swat, Abbas said.

This is the third time the army has tried to defeat the Taliban in Swat. Challenged today about whether this operation would fare better than prior efforts, Abbas provided little reassurance.

"We should look forward," he said, "not backward."

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