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Pakistan Army Faces Key Test In Taliban Fight

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Pakistan is launching a military operation that could prove crucial to the survival of its government. The Taliban has taken over Swat Valley, a tourist resort in Pakistan's northwest. Pakistani forces have been trying to drive them out for months, but the militants have fought back. Hundreds of people have died, hundreds of thousands have left. Well, now, Pakistan's army is making a fresh attempt to win back the valley.

Here's NPR's Philip Reeves.

PHILIP REEVES: This time Pakistan's army knows it must win. Swat Valley is not part of the tribal belt along the Afghan border, an area which no government's ever controlled. Pakistanis see Swat as an important part of their country - a beautiful thriving place with sophisticated moderate people. That's why analysts say losing Swat would be a huge blow to the government of President Asif Ali Zardari.

Mr. KHADIM HUSSAIN (Expert on Northwest Pakistan): It has become a test case for the elected government. In the eyes of the people, I think this is a deciding moment.

REEVES: Khadim Hussain is an expert on the conflict in northwest Pakistan. He says if Pakistan's army fails in Swat, Islamist militancy could spread even farther and threaten to break up the country.

Mr. HUSSAIN: It may have a very, very negative impact for the integration of Pakistan as a whole. There might be civil war, and there might be disruption and chaos.

REEVES: Pakistani forces first went into Swat to drive out the Taliban in late 2007. After peace talks failed last summer, hostilities resumed and the Taliban's influence steadily grew. It's assassinated scores of local leaders. It's imposed its own uncompromising version of Islamic law. Now the army's trying again by launching what it calls, a final and decisive round in the fight. Major Nasir Khan is a Pakistani military spokesman in Swat.

Major NASIR KHAN (Pakistani Military Spokesman): The government is determined because the militant are basically a parasite. These need to be completely rooted out.

REEVES: Khan admits rooting out the militants is not easy. The militants have sophisticated weapons, are well entrenched and are able to seek refuge in Swat's mountains. Some in Swat accuse Pakistan's forces of having no stomach for this war and say they've alienated Swat's heavily depleted population by abusive conduct and indiscriminate deadly shelling. Khan says the army's doing everything it can to win.

Maj. KHAN: We have put at stake our lives. Regular troops, paramilitary forces have died in fighting against this menace of militancy. And this war is a war of a civilized world versus the barbarians.

REEVES: The conflict's heating up. There was fierce fighting last night outside Swat's main city, Mingora. Ahmad Shah is in Mingora.

Mr. AHMAD SHAH: Fighting is going on, and helicopters are hovering. They are shelling the people. According to them, they are targeting the militants, but actually, they are targeting the innocent people.

(Soundbite of news broadcast)

REEVES: Pakistan's media is following the battle for Swat with intense interest, placing it at the top of the news. Ayaz Wasir(ph), a former senior Pakistani diplomat, thinks this time the army's tactics will be different.

Mr. AYAZ WASIR (Former Senior Pakistani Diplomat): In the previous operations, if we see in Swat, what the government has done is like walking into a house, beating everybody and walking out of the house, leaving it to the people to sort it out between themselves. Now, this time the government will clean it and then stay over there to ensure that nobody takes the situation into their own hands.

REEVES: Pakistanis know the stakes in Swat are very high. An editorial in Pakistan's highly respected Dawn newspaper put it bluntly, failure, it said, would be catastrophic.

Philip Reeves, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves
Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.