Pakistan Opens New Fight Against Surging Taliban

After weeks in which Pakistanis watched Taliban fighters parading just a few hours drive from the capital, Islamabad, the government and military decided to strike back today, sending paramilitary soldiers, tanks and Cobra helicopters into Northwest Pakistan.

The Frontier Corps began fighting the Taliban this morning in Lower Dir, part of the Northwest Frontier district where the government imposed Islamic Law two weeks ago in the hope the Taliban would holster their weapons.

A provincial government official said the Pakistani troops would continue on into Buner, a district just 70 miles from Islamabad where the Taliban recently created a local militant force to enforce their brand of justice.

The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, claimed that the provincial government wanted to launch the operation months ago but waited so it could engage militants in areas better suited for air power and for paramilitary forces.

The alternative, the official said, was engaging them with the conventional military in the Swat Valley, but he said the provincial government does not trust the military leadership as much as it does the paramilitary forces.

The operation will be led by the Frontier Corps as well as a new, elite group of 2,500 police officers recently trained to take on the Taliban, the government official said.

Dir, unlike Swat, borders Afghanistan and is one of the most violent areas for United States troops. Government officials denied that any external pressure led them to begin the operation.

The imposition of Islamic law, or sharia, after almost two years of military campaigns that failed to dislodge the Taliban from Swat created a cascade of criticism from the United States and from within Pakistan. Critics accused the government and military of being incapable and even unwilling to confront a spreading Taliban threat.

Following the agreement, the Taliban did not disarm, despite promising to do so, and have instead moved out of their base in the Swat Valley into the areas closer to the capital, showing off expensive vehicles and weapons not readily available in the markets.

The military campaign launched today was designed to dislodge the militants, and it was quickly met with a heavy response. Five soldiers, including one major, were killed in the initial hours of the operation, according to local residents. At least 20 militants have also been killed.

Residents seem to approve of the operation.

"People are afraid of the Taliban and not coming out of homes. Business is bad. Everything is bad," one resident told ABC News today, declining to give his name.

But the operation also caused a panic, highlighting the balance the military must find in a part of the country that opposes the Taliban but has also suffered civilian casualties during military campaigns.

Hundreds of people fled Dir as the fighting began, entire families loading their children and belongings into trucks shown on local television.

"The government is trying its best to allow the whole cycle to complete -- the return of peace, normalcy to the valley, without any further bloodbath, death, destruction," Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, the military's chief spokesman, told ABC News, referring to the peace deal.

But now, Abbas said, the Taliban had "violated the agreement" and the military was "very determined to move them out of Buner."

In Swat the army caused many civilian casualties and a third of Swat's 1.5 million residents fled the area. The provincial government is hoping paramilitary forces, who are recruited from the local areas, will be more precise in their operations.

But they are largely seen as under-equipped and undertrained to tackle well-funded and well-armed Taliban militants.

The Untied States has given the paramilitary and police more than $300 million, but privately police and some paramilitary officials question where that money went.

"Frontier Corps is stretched. It's spread over quite a huge area. It requires more battalions, it requires better equipment, it requires more mobility," Abbas said.

Security in the northwest has deteriorated so much, the government official said, that the provincial government had shifted around $100 million -- almost 30 percent -- of its budget from development to security, specifically for police training.

But he admitted it does not have enough money to train enough police and paramilitary to tackle the Taliban, which are estimated to number in the thousands.

"It's like if you want to throw a party for $10,000, and all you have is $1,000," the official said.