Pakistan's offensive against the Taliban in South Waziristan, a region near the Afghan border, is progressing more swiftly than expected, military spokesmen said Monday, the third day of the push. But the army also said it has met pockets of stiff resistance.
Briefing reporters on Pakistan's latest offensive against extremists, Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas said that in the past 24 hours, government forces have executed an enveloping maneuver around the town of Kotkai in the eastern sector of their three-pronged advance. He said troops took heights overlooking the militant-controlled city and secured towns on the way to Kotkai.
Abbas said troops converging from the west were consolidating their positions and had blown up ammunition caches as well as anti-aircraft guns. About 28,000 Pakistani troops are involved in the offensive.
By the army's reckoning, 78 militants have been killed so far, along with nine soldiers.
The Taliban has countered army claims with its own, saying militants have inflicted "heavy casualties" on government troops.
The fighting has also spawned a civilian exodus from South Waziristan. More than 100,000 people have fled their homes.
Knocking out militants' defenses is key to success, Abbas said, but he warned that it is a long way before the militants are defeated.
"The pattern of the operations in the past in these areas are that they do give resistance," he said. "But when they lose the area, they also return in either pinpricks or raids or unconventional operations. So it's a long way — it will be premature to really say what exactly is the pattern."
Abbas estimated that the army is ahead of where it thought it would be by about 36 hours into the operation. Advances slowed, however, on the third front of the army's push to surround the Taliban and al-Qaida stronghold.
Soldiers moving into the area from North Waziristan took incoming missile fire from the town of Makeen, the base of the late Baitullah Mehsud, the Taliban leader killed by a U.S. missile strike in August. He was succeeded by Hakimullah Mehsud, also part of the Mehsud tribe from which the Taliban draws strong support.
The army said it is counting on a rival Taliban group led by the Wazir tribe of South Waziristan to stay on the sidelines, and not enter the fray on behalf of their brethren in the Mehsud territory. Abbas said neutrality would help the Pakistani military further isolate the Taliban it is trying to encircle.
"Because the center of gravity of the whole terrorism problem of our country lies in this area and this organization," he said. "I think we would like to also talk to the devil in this regard. So there is no harm in isolating this organization from the others."
The military has deployed 28,000 troops in Waziristan against an enemy that is, according to Abbas, anywhere from 5,000 to 15,000 strong. The ratio of government troops to Taliban fighters is roughly 3 to 1 — a proportion that defense analysts such as retired Brig. Javed Hussain say is too low.
Hussain says deploying too few troops risks forcing the Pakistan army into a guerrilla war that could carry on for years. "Ten years of American involvement in Vietnam, 10 years of Soviets in Afghanistan and about nine years of Americans again in Afghanistan. So, this is something which the Pakistan army will not be able to afford: a protracted war," he says.
Abbas defended the force strength as appropriate. He said that as the army tightens the noose around the Taliban, forces are also closing off possible escape routes to Afghanistan. But authorities say there is not much of a threat that militants will cross into Afghanistan because Pakistani troops are encircling them in an area that is not contiguous to the border.