Pakistani troops took the main town in a key northwestern valley yesterday after being dropped by helicopters behind Taliban lines on the second day of an offensive, a military spokesman said.
The Taliban’s advance into a region just 100km northwest of Islamabad earlier this month had sent shivers through Pakistan and heightened fears in the US that the nuclear-armed Muslim state was becoming more unstable.
Pakistan’s demonstration of military resolve in Buner valley will likely reassure US President Barack Obama and Afghan counterpart Hamid Karzai when they meet Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari in Washington from May 6 to May 7 to discuss regional strategy.
Taliban fighters held the entrances to the valley, but they risk being caught between security forces at their front and rear after the successful airdrop.
“The airborne forces have linked up to police and Frontier Constabulary in Daggar,” the military spokesman said. “A link up with ground forces is in progress.”
Residents saw troops rappel down ropes from helicopters outside Daggar, the main town in Buner, while firing and explosions were also heard intermittently.
“We saw a helicopter dropping troops on the hills early this morning. It came about seven or eight times,” said Arshad Imran standing in the town’s central bazaar. “We hear sound of explosions off and on and we can see helicopters flying over the mountains.”
The military estimated some 500 militants were in the Buner valley of the North West Frontier Province, about 140km southeast of the Afghan border, and that it might take a week to clear them out.
Jet fighters and helicopters gunships provided air support for army and paramilitary troops leading the offensive on Tuesday.
The military has said a few hundred militants holed up in the mountains never represented a real threat to the capital.
But, Ikram Seghal, a retired army officer turned analyst, said the Taliban could have used Buner to advance on Tarbela, a dam regarded as critical for water and electricity supplies, before reaching Islamabad.
“It is very important psychologically, tactically and strategically to make sure that Buner is cleared of these Taliban,” Seghal said.
The Pentagon urged Pakistan to remain on the offensive.
“The key is to sustain these operations at this tempo and to keep the militants on their heels and to ultimately defeat them,” Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said.
Washington is considering rushing hundreds of millions of dollars in emergency aid to Pakistan, the US Senate’s second-ranking Republican, Jon Kyl of Arizona, told reporters.
Pakistan is desperate for military and economic aid to fight an insurgency that has washed back across the border from Afghanistan.
But allies had feared Zardari’s government was too ready to appease the militants after he signed off on a regulation to introduce Islamic Shariah courts in the Malakand division of North West Frontier Province.
Malakand has a long history of Islamist fervor going back to the British Raj in pre-Partition India, even though in earlier times the Swat Valley had been a center of Buddhism and until a couple of years ago had been a favorite destination for honeymooners, hikers and skiers.
The government had hoped that meeting demands for Shariah courts would quiet the militants in Swat.
But the Taliban instead became emboldened, fanning out of Swat into other parts of Malakand, including Buner, Lower Dir and Shangla districts.