October 3, 2008, Peshawar, Pakistan – War has come to Pakistan, not just as terrorist bombings, but as full-scale battles, leaving Pakistanis angry and dismayed as the dead, wounded and displaced turn up on their doorstep.
An estimated 250,000 people have now fled the gunship helicopters, jets, artillery and mortar fire of the Pakistani army, and the assaults, intimidation and rough justice of the Taliban who have dug into Pakistan’s tribal areas.
About 20,000 people are so desperate they have flooded over the border from the Bajur tribal area to seek safety in war-torn Afghanistan.
Many others are crowding around this northwest Pakistani city, where staff members from the U.N. refugee agency are present at nearly a dozen camps.
“This is now a war zone,” said Marco Succi, the spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross, which flew in a special surgical team from abroad last week to work alongside Pakistani doctors.
Not since Pakistan forged an alliance with the United States after 9/11 has the Pakistani army fought its own people on such a scale and at such close quarters to a major city. After years of relative passivity, the army is now engaged in heavy fighting with the insurgents on at least three fronts.
The sudden engagement of the Pakistani army comes after months in which the United States has heaped criticism, behind the scenes and in public, on Pakistan for not doing enough to take on the extremists, and increasingly took action into its own hands with drone strikes and even a raid by Special Operations forces in Pakistan’s tribal areas.
But the army campaign has also unfolded as the Taliban have encroached deeper into Pakistan proper and carried out far bolder terrorist attacks, like the Marriott Hotel bombing last month in Islamabad, the capital, which have generated high anxiety among the political, business and diplomatic elite and a feeling that the country is teetering.
In early August, goaded by the U.S. complaints and faced with a nexus of the Taliban and al-Qaida that had become too powerful to ignore, the chief of the Pakistan military, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, opened the front in Bajur, a Taliban and al-Qaida stronghold along the Afghan border.
The military already was locked in an uphill fight against the insurgents in Swat, a more settled area of North-West Frontier Province that was once a middle-class ski resort. Today it is a maelstrom of killing.
At a third front, south of Peshawar, around the town of Dera Adam Khel, the army recently recaptured from Taliban control the strategic Kohat tunnel, a road more than a mile long that carries NATO supplies from the port of Karachi to the U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan.
From their side of the fighting in Bajur, the Taliban have mounted a brutal show of intimidation, money and deep support from across the border in Afghanistan and Mohmand, according to interviews with the displaced and with law-enforcement and military officials.
According to the military officials, many of the Taliban fighters come from Central Asia.
In Swat, the Pakistani army has been fighting the Taliban for more than two months, and still the Taliban hold the upper hand, according to accounts from people who have fled the area. Reports of Taliban terrorism are widespread.
In one case, scores of Taliban fighters confronted the brother of Waqar Khan, a member of the provincial assembly, who was with two of his sons and ordered Khan’s brother, Iqbal Ahmed Khan, to choose the one he wanted killed, said the president of the Awami National Party, Sen. Asfandyar Wali.
After being humiliated into choosing one son, the Taliban killed both boys, their father and seven servants, Wali said.
On Thursday a suicide bomber blew himself up at Wali’s home, killing four people and narrowly missing Wali, one of the best-known politicians in North-West Frontier Province and a national figure.
Many residents of Swat say they are exasperated by the army-imposed, round-the-clock curfew that keeps them indoors listening to the scream of jets and the thud of artillery.
To increase the misery, the Taliban blew up the power grid last week, and when protesters gathered in the main street of Mingora, the police fired, killing six people.
More than 140 girls schools have been destroyed by the Taliban in the past several months.
In a typical technique to raise money, the extremists ordered the shopkeepers in the mall in Matta to stop paying rent to the landlord, and pay the rebels instead.
The one hope in the gloom of war, said civilians and law-enforcement officials, has been the formation of small private armies by tribal leaders, known in the region as lashkars to stand up to the Taliban.
In Salarzai, in the northern corner of Bajur, a local private army has attracted several thousand anti-Taliban fighters, said Jalal-Uddin Khan, a tribal leader.
Closer to Peshawar, in the village of Shabqadar, where the Taliban had terrorized women who did not wear the burqa, and killed men they deemed as “pimps” and threw their bodies in the river, local police organized civilians to join them in a display of force against the rebels.
Last week, about 500 people, led by the local police chief, battled the Taliban in Shabqadar, leaving nine Taliban fighters dead and 28 wounded. In revenge, the Taliban threatened to blow up Warsak Dam, the main water supply for Peshawar.
But Malik Naveed Khan, the police chief of NorthWest Frontier Province, said he was not deterred.
“I told the governor: ‘Open many fronts. We are more than them.’ “