Thousands of Pakistani villagers fled their homes outside the country’s northwestern provincial capital Peshawar today as troops advanced to attack a militant group that has disrupted the main trade route to Afghanistan.
Pakistan’s army is escalating its fight in the Khyber tribal district as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, visiting the capital, Islamabad, is demanding a new campaign against a separate Taliban faction, the Haqqani group, headquartered 165 kilometers (100 miles) to the southwest in the North Waziristan district. U.S. officials say that Haqqani, a main Taliban faction fighting U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan, is backed by at least some elements of the Pakistani military and its intelligence service.
Families from Malik Din Khel and Sipah fled in cars and on foot, some driving herds of goats ahead of them, after officials warned of the impending attack, local resident Niaz Ali Khan said by phone. A day earlier, local guerrillas ambushed troops from the army’s paramilitary Frontier Corps yesterday, triggering a battle in which 34 militants and three soldiers died. The villages, which officials say have about 3,000 residents, are 8 kilometers (5 miles) southwest of Peshawar.
The fighting is the latest eruption of a seven-year-old rebellion led by a local man, Mangal Bagh, whose Lashkar-e-Islam guerrillas are loosely allied with Pakistan’s Taliban movement. Bagh’s fighters have threatened security in Peshawar and have attacked NATO supply convoys on the highway from the city to the Khyber Pass border crossing, the main overland trade route to Afghanistan.
‘Enemy Number One’
The U.S. wants Pakistan to end its long alliance with the Haqqanis, even though the Pakistani army is reluctant to lose them as a proxy force in Afghanistan according to analysts including Pakistani author Ahmed Rashid.
“Enemy number one is Haqqani,” said Major General Daniel Allyn, the top U.S. commander in eastern Afghanistan, in an August interview with the Long War Journal, a U.S.-based monitoring group on the war.
The risk that violence may spread from Khyber district to Peshawar, the capital of the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province and Pakistan’s eighth-largest city, may make Bagh a higher priority than the Haqqanis for the Pakistani army. It has acted quickly in the past to counter such a threat.
In 2008, when Bagh’s men made incursions into Peshawar, the military launched an offensive and blew up his home. In 2009, thousands of troops forcibly closed the Khyber district’s Bara Market, a bazaar of about 10,000 shops and warehouses just west of Peshawar, because much of its commerce was in goods and drugs smuggled from Afghanistan, said Tariq Hayat Khan, the chief security officer for Khyber, Waziristan and the five other ethnic Pashtun tribal districts that form a semi-autonomous zone along Pakistan’s Afghan border.
“The shopkeepers and workshop owners paid millions of rupees,” or tens of thousands of dollars, “each month in protection money to the militants and to criminal organizations,” Khan said in an interview last week.
Bara’s closure has exacerbated unemployment in the border zone, called the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, where only 20 percent of men are employed fulltime, according to a 2010 survey sponsored by a Washington research group, the New America Foundation. The lack of jobs has helped fuel the region’s militant insurgencies, Khan and analysts say.