Pakistan Generals Claim Taliban on the Run

On the top of this mountain, where the only thing that impedes the view is the horizon or a nearby peak, the Pakistani flag is flying for the first time in more than three years.

Until two days ago, the Taliban controlled the 7,000-foot point, according to local Pakistani army generals, using it as a command center and training facility from which they sent out young boys to fight an insurgency across the besieged Swat Valley.

Today, the army escorted a group of mostly foreign media to the peak and a base below it to try and prove that it was succeeding in its attempts to defeat an embedded Taliban insurgency in a valley of 1.7 million people.

The fight was continuing methodically, the escorting military generals insisted, although they admitted that about 30 percent of the area around the peak was still under Taliban control, including their stronghold, just two valleys and peaks away from Baine Baba Ziarat. They also said the fight would move toward the Taliban stronghold and into Swat's major towns.

But while the generals claimed not to have inflicted any suffering on the local population, some residents in the valleys below the peak say the operation has cut off access to food and water for weeks, and that they are suffering more than anyone else in the ongoing battles across the Northwest Frontier Province.

One resident of Bahrain, one of the largest districts in the area, told ABC News today that about 10,000 people recently protested the lack of food and basic facilities like access to health care. The resident, who declined to provide his name, also disputed news reports that another nearby area had repelled a recent Taliban advance.

He said he helped broker a fragile peace between the Taliban and residents of Kalam, but that the agreement only ensured the militants wouldn't attack the locals. They were still entrenched in Kalam, he said, ready for the army to bring the battle to them, and that residents opposing the Taliban were angry they hadn't received military assistance despite telling the army they were running out of ammunition.

Generals Say Taliban on the Run

As he spoke by phone, the possible implications of the war arrived in the form of a massive explosion in a crowded mall in the region's capital, Peshawar. A car bomb destroyed buildings and killed at least six people, Peshawar police officials told ABC News, injuring at least 72. It was the largest attack since the battles in the northwest began and the second in Peshawar in the past week, seemingly a sign that attacks of retribution could occur at any point.

But the generals on the ground in the Swat Valley said their effort was proceeding well, and that they had taken two of three main principle objectives in northern Swat and were closing in on their third.

"Militants are on the run; they have lost their ability to mount a coherent response," said Maj. Gen. Sajjid Ghani, who leads the fight in northern Swat. "The operation won't be over until it reaches its logical end state, until all terrorists and extremists are eliminated n Swat."

Ghani and his aides admitted that their military superiority went further on top of a mountain peak where the Talbain don't have anti-aircraft guns than it will in the cities, where fighters are living among hundreds of thousands of people.

Some of those residents have chosen to stay in the area and some have failed to find a way to get out and join 2 million residents who have fled their homes since late last month, the largest exodus in South Asia since the partition of Pakistan and India in 1947.

In cities like Mingora, Swat's capital, as well as Bahrain, an offensive that the United States has dubbed "significant" and "necessary" has killed dozens of civilians, according to those who fled the area, and caused significant suffering for the poor who can't afford to pay hugely inflated prices for food.

One bag of flour that usually sells for about $5 is now selling for six times that, one resident of Mingora told ABC News.

But, unlike in the previous two Swat operations, both of which ended in government-sponsored peace deals with the Taliban, there seems to be a dramatic shift in people's willingness to put up with the side effects of war, largely because of two public events: the videotaped flogging of a 17-year-old girl in Swat and a declaration by the cleric who negotiated the latest peace deal with the Taliban that democracy was un-Islamic.

Swat Residents Fed Up With Taliban

"Whatever happens, no matter what, the military must finish the Taliban this time," said one resident of Mingora who wanted to remain anonymous.

The resident described how the Taliban had set up a checkpoint outside the family home and warned the servants who were guarding the house they would be shot if they came out. "The residents of Swat will do anything to get rid of the Taliban," he said. "If the army has to stay there for 10 years, we'll accept it."

The army cites that popular support as the main reason it is confident it can defeat the Taliban in Swat, compared to its previous two attempts.

"Those operations were in a vacuum," Ghani told the visiting journalists. "Unless you have public support, you cannot succeed."

Ghani and other military officials each hinted that India and Afghanistan were the main sponsors and facilitators of the Taliban in Swat. Declining to name India by name, Ghani said the Taliban's primary economic support came from "hostile intelligence agencies."

Pressed to provide proof of India's involvement, Ghani and the military's chief spokesman, Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, said only that there is ample evidence of "a neighboring country's involvement" and that any further comment would have to be made by the foreign office.

Ghani also said that criminality and smuggling, as well as the drug trade in Afghanistan, were fueling the militancy.

One fighter caught by the army and paraded in front of the media said he was from Helmand, Afghanistan, and had been fighting on behalf of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, an Afghan jihad leader and former prime minister, before traveling to Swat.

His claim could not be confirmed, but commanders said that Afghans, Tajiks, and Uzbeks -- as well as fighters from the rest of Pakistan -- had been discovered fighting alongside local Swati Taliban, although the vast majority of the foot soldiers had been recruited from surrounding villages.

With their help, even the foreign fighters had managed to embed themselves within the population, commanders said, and when they shaved off their beards and cut their long hair, they were indistinguishable from local residents.

Time Frame for Clearing Out Swat Uncertain

"The enemy we fight here is faceless," said Brig. Gen. Ajab Khan, who had been posted in the nearby fort of Khwazakhela for more than a year.

Pressed on how long the operation would take, Ghani said the area he oversaw in northern Swat should be cleared within three to four months.

But U.S. officials are skeptical of that estimate. Rear Adm. Michael Lefever, the top military advisor in the Islamabad embassy, told reporters this week he expected refugee camps to remain full through the end of the year.

And some of Ghani's own commanders admitted that the battle would take longer than anyone anticipated.

Khan pointed out the colonial history of the area, noting that one of Britain's worst battles in its history occurred a few miles from Swat. "The Brits were here for 94 years," Khan said. "With an insurgency like this, it takes time."