The Pakistani army has retaken control of key parts of the contested Swat Valley in recent days, but the Taliban has kept its grip on some of the area's largest towns nearly a month into a massive military offensive, army commanders said Friday during a visit near the front lines.
Speaking at a rudimentary base in the heart of this verdant valley, the commanders acknowledged that regaining full control of Swat will probably take months and involve intense combat with the well-trained, well-funded Taliban militia. Highlighting the difficulty, some extremists are simply melting back into the civilian population so they can fight another day, as they have during previous clashes over the past 18 months in Swat.
"You cannot distinguish between a Talib and a normal citizen," said Maj. Gen. Sajjad Ali, who commands troops in the northern portion of Swat. "The area is densely populated, and it's very easy for the terrorists to hide."
The battle for control of Swat has tested the Pakistani government's resolve to confront a raging Islamist insurgency that has gripped much of the northwest and threatened to reach into the nation's heartland. The most recent wave of fighting in Swat began late last month after a peace deal collapsed and the insurgents, who had agreed to lay down their weapons if they were permitted to institute Islamic law in Swat, instead overran adjacent districts and moved to within 60 miles of Pakistan's capital, Islamabad.
At the time, top U.S. officials expressed deep concern that the Pakistani government was not up to the task of combating the Taliban. That doubt has eased somewhat in recent weeks, however, as the army has conducted major operations in Swat and in the neighboring districts of Buner and Dir. More than 2 million civilians have fled the fighting, and aid groups have warned of a possible humanitarian disaster. The United Nations on Friday launched an appeal for $543 million to aid those displaced by the military operation.
While the offensive has taken a heavy toll on civilians, it has also bolstered hopes in Pakistan and abroad that the government will not allow radical Islamist forces to expand their territory in this nuclear-armed nation of 170 million people.
The army reported Friday that it had killed 17 militants over the previous 24 hours, adding to the total of more than 1,000 that it said have died since the offensive began. The numbers are impossible to verify, because it is unsafe for journalists to operate freely in Swat, and most local officials have fled. The army says nearly 100 security officers have been killed.
Friday evening, there was a fresh reminder that militants in Pakistan can carry out attacks far beyond Swat: An explosion outside a movie theater in Peshawar, the capital of North-West Frontier Province, killed at least five people and injured dozens. Taliban leaders have warned of such attacks in retribution for the army's offensive.
Swat, known as the Switzerland of Asia, was once one of Pakistan's leading tourist destinations. With its braided mountain streams, golden fields of wheat and soaring, tree-studded peaks, the valley was considered a national treasure, and the local population was renowned for its moderation.
But inept governance and the growth of radical Islamist groups in the nearby Afghan border region combined to make Swat a haven for militancy in recent years.
In late 2007, it became the first major area in Pakistan outside semiautonomous tribal regions to fall under Taliban control. During their time in power, the radicals -- led by the charismatic preacher Maulana Fazlullah -- have instituted a severe strain of Islamic justice, flogging criminals in public and beheading those who challenge their authority.
The government has alternately fought and negotiated with the Taliban in Swat, a strategy that seems to have only further emboldened the extremists. But army officials said Friday that after the failure of the most recent cease-fire this spring, negotiations are off the table.
"I don't think there's even the slightest consideration of accepting a cease-fire," said Ali, the general, adding that the army will pursue its operation until "the logical end, which is when all the terrorists and militants are eliminated in Swat."
Ali and other military officials conceded that that will not be easy. The army on Friday pointed to signs of progress, showing off a strategically important mountain ridge that was once used as a terrorist training center. It was captured by the military several days ago after a 12-hour battle in which soldiers scaled the ridgeline. The army also claims success in such areas as Matta, which has long been a Taliban stronghold.
But the Taliban continues to rule the road along the valley floor in Mingora, Swat's largest town, as well as in other key population centers.
Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, an army spokesman, said the military was close to encircling Mingora and would soon launch an operation to retake the town.
But for residents who have been pushed out of their homes, the army's promises to restore order in Swat ring hollow.
Badsha Syed, who fled his home Friday, said the army's operation had failed to target the Taliban leaders who are driving the insurgency. Fazlullah, among others, remains at large.
"No top commander has been killed," Syed said. "They are alive, but they are underground."