Pakistan fights to regain control of Khyber area

NY Times:

In the first action against Taliban militants threatening this city, Pakistani security forces shelled territory held by an extremist Islamic leader Saturday in an operation designed to push the militants back from the city perimeter.

Mortar shells were launched against two bases of an Islamic militant known as Mangal Bagh, whose well-armed men have taken control over much of Khyber agency adjacent to Peshawar, senior military officials said.

“The ultimate objective is to establish the writ of the government where it is challenged,” Mohammed Allam Khattack, inspector general of the Frontier Corps, said at a news conference here.

General Khattack said the operation was undertaken in response to “growing public demand” for a show of force against militants who have kidnapped city residents on an almost daily basis in the last several weeks, and intimidated surrounding towns by shutting down courts.

The show of force Saturday, which included a blockade around the area of Bara in Khyber agency where Mangal Baar keeps most of his men, was limited to the Frontier Corps, a paramilitary force that is considered poorly equipped and generally demoralized.

The Pakistani army maintains a large presence in Peshawar at an old British fort housing the 11th Corps. Although some news agencies reported a major military offensive, for the moment, the army is being held “in reserve,” the spokesman for the military, Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas said.

The main target of the operation, according to a senior military officer, was to destroy the bases of Mangal Bagh in Bara.

But residents in Sipah, where the militant leader keeps his house, and in Shalober, the site of one of his bases, said by telephone that both places were empty of Mangal Bagh forces by Friday. Mr. Mangal Bagh returned to his house in Sipah late Friday night then left at 4 a.m. Saturday, said Rauf Khan Afridi, a resident of the town who was reached by telephone.

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Visitors to Sipah on Friday said there were no armed men in their usual haunts in the market place or around the village, a sign that they were expecting the attack from government forces and had fled.

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The forces of Mangal Bagh that were the primary target of Saturday’s attack are made up of several thousand men, most of whom are volunteers, but some of whom have been conscripted.

Some doubts were expressed Saturday about the seriousness and intent of the attack by the Frontier Corps.

...


The Frontier Corps has been a largely ineffective force in recent years. In several engagements, its troops have surrendered or been captured by the Taliban. There is evidence recently that they have given the Taliban cover fire on attacks in Afghanistan.

At a minimum they need training counterinsurgency warfare. The US has offered it and so far Pakistan has not seized the opportunity.

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