Pakistan Expands Taliban Offensive

Pakistanis in Swat Valley are caught in crossfire between militants, military.

ByABC News
May 6, 2009, 7:27 PM

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, May 6, 2009— -- 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.