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."

Bajaur, Kunar and the 'Watershed Moment'

Wanat, Afghanistan, is less than 30 miles from Tang Khatta, across the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. It is part of the Korengal valley and Kunar province, an area that's become so deadly it has helped make 2008 the most violent year in Afghanistan for both American troops and civilians.

On July 13, militants stormed a base near Wanat, killing nine members of the 173rd Airborne Brigade, based in northern Italy. All U.S. soldiers were scheduled to come home in a few weeks as they finished their 15 month deployments.

"Clearly, we saw what happened in the Korengal valley as a watershed moment," an unidentified government official told the Army Times this week. The attack, the official said, caused the United States to rethink its policy toward Pakistan.

For years, the Joint Special Operations Command, which oversees a group of elite Navy Seals and Delta Force soldiers along the border, has been trying to convince the administration to conduct raids inside Pakistan, the Army Times reported.

After the July 13 operation, the administration did just that, and on Sept. 3, special forces soldiers launched the first major raid inside Pakistani soil when they landed in the area of Angor Aadda in South Waziristan, about 200 miles south of Bajaur.

The raid inflamed anti-American sentiment throughout the tribal areas, the adjoining settled areas of the Northwest Frontier Province, and the country.

"The government should respond" to the raids, Mohammad Sayid, a resident of Bajaur, told ABC News recently during a visit to Peshawar. "If the government cannot, then they should let the people do it -- and everyone would become a fighter."

The Pakistani military has been trying to convince U.S. commanders not to launch attacks inside Pakistan. They point to not only an inflamed public but also at tribesmen who have recently pledged to fight the Taliban.

This month groups of vigilante tribal forces -- known here as lashkars -- have formed in the Kurram and Khyber trial areas, as well as in Bajaur.

As part of the media trip, the military escorted reporters to the dusty main street in Raghagan, a 20 minute drive from Tang Khatta to meet the head of the Salarzai tribe.

There, Malik Munasib Khan presided over a meet-the-media sort of event for the tribe's fighters. With other tribal leaders, he stood on the edge of a raised platform protected from the sun. At his feet, hundreds of young men, all holding up AK-47s, responded to his statements just as parishioners in a church would -- shaking their heads and voicing confirmation (though in this case, they chanted "God is Great" and yelled as they raised their rifles).

"When the Taliban came to Afghanistan, we liked them so much, I swear, the people of Bajaur and women of Bajaur sold their gold for them," Malik Khan recently told ABC News in an interview, his fighters roaring with confirmation. "But those Taliban brothers, they committed atrocities against our tribe, our area and our government. We now must rise against them. And the whole world knows that the Salarzai tribe has risen against them."

"The Salarzai tribe has come up, they've cleaned their area and now they're coordinating with the government to clean the other areas also," Northwest Frontier Province Governor Owais Ahmed Ghani recently told ABC News. "Today, I can very confidently state that 98 percent of the population is anti these militants and these terrorists and are actually helping government and supplementing government efforts."

It is that attitude that citizens, the military and the government here said would be at risk if the United States continued its attacks inside Pakistan.

"No government will remain in power if it allows American forces officially to operate ... inside Afghanistan territory," says retired Lt. Gen. Kamal Matinuddin, the author of the "Taliban Phenomenon" and "Beyond Afghanistan: Emerging U.S.-Pakistan Relations." "Ground troops in Pakistan territory would not be accepted. There would be a general uproar within Pakistan, the present government may fall. And that will further make matters worse for America."

As Bajaur's political agent, the most powerful deal-maker in the district, told ABC News: "They are against the action by the Americans inside Pakistan territory or [the Federally Administered Tribal Areas]. And they said if it's continued, these people will become a sympathizer to Taliban, and anti-American."

And Governor Ghani even suggested that if the raids continue, the U.S. supply line to Afghanistan -- 80 percent of which flows through Pakistan -- would be at risk.

Bajaur as a Litmus Test

One official recently told reporters that Bajaur was a "litmus test" for the Pakistani military, a fight that would signal to the United States whether forces here are willing and able to wrestle the tribal areas away from the militants.

Bajaur is also a division between the two militaries that goes beyond the debate over whether the United States should launch attacks inside Pakistan.

The United States has struck at least eight times inside Pakistan this month -- all in South or North Waziristan, where al Qaeda's senior leadership is believed to be hiding.

For the Pakistanis, though, Bajaur is the main fight -- and implicit in their analysis of Bajaur is criticism of the United States' approach to the region.

"One has to prioritize the bigger threat. Is a compound in South Waziristan or North Waziristan a bigger threat? Or is Bajaur, which has become a huge stronghold of all the militants -- al Qaeda, Talibans, local, foreign Talibans, and radiating, threatening attacks in all direction -- is it to be dealt first?" asked Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, the military's chief spokesman. "We had to prioritize, and yes, Bajaur required an operation in a very urgent way and that's why we decided to go against Bajaur."

But Pakistan's military knows it will be judged by a skeptical United States on whether it can complete this mission successfully.

Khan, the inspector general of the frontier corps, acknowledged that in the past, the military was not allowed to complete some of its missions, most notably one in South Waziristan that left the regional Taliban leader stronger than ever.

This time, he said, would be different, because much more is at stake."

"What would be terribly wrong would be to pull up this operation short of its logical conclusion ... or worse case scenario, we don't make any headway and we stop the operation, don't succeed. It would be a terrible disaster," he said. "This militancy would enhance. ... And it would start expanding."

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