BARA, Pakistan — Pakistan's new government claimed success Sunday in its first military operation against Islamic extremists, moving against warlords who were threatening to overrun the major city of Peshawar.
A paramilitary force took on militants based in the wild Khyber tribal area, just west of Peshawar, the provincial capital of the North West Frontier Province that borders Afghanistan.
The offensive, which began Saturday, was at odds with the government's declared policy of seeking peace deals with Taliban and other extremist groups massed in the country's northwest fringe. But the move won plaudits from Washington and Kabul, which have complained bitterly about attacks against Afghan and NATO forces launched from Pakistan's tribal area.
Troops blew up the home and other bases of warlord Mangal Bagh around the town of Bara, in the Khyber agency, and uncovered a jail and torture chamber, according to officials. They shut down an illegal FM radio station he used to spread his message in daily broadcasts. They also fired artillery shells at targets on nearby hilltops. For the first time in months, the paramilitary Frontier Corps moved out of its forts in Khyber to patrol the streets, in armored personnel carriers and jeeps.
Claiming success, the top official at the federal Interior Ministry, Rehman Malik, said: "I want to tell the people of Peshawar, sleep easy tonight. We are awake."
However, the government action came only after repeated pleas from provincial officials and police for a response to the militants' increasingly brazen incursions into Peshawar and other major cities in North West Frontier Province. Peshawar, which has a population of 3 million, is now surrounded from three sides by Taliban and other Islamist groups.
Habibullah Khan, the top bureaucrat in charge of the tribal belt, known as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, said: "They (the militants) had come to think that, no matter what they do, the state will not challenge us. ... There were public floggings and private jails within a stone's throw of Peshawar."
With Islamabad preoccupied with political infighting following February's elections and the new North West provincial government promoting a pacifist policy, local officials resorted to leaking information about the dire security situation to the media. That produced alarming headlines that forced the government to act.
The response was swift from insurgents elsewhere in the northwest, who declared that they were suspending the fragile peace talks that had been going on with the national and provincial governments in the militant strongholds of Swat, in North West Frontier Province, and South Waziristan, in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas.
In the Khyber area, locals in Bara marketplace denounced the operation. They insisted that Mangal Bagh had enforced law and order to an area that, while under government control, was notorious for smuggled goods, drugs and kidnappings.
"There is peace here, what is the point of the operation?" said Said Ayaz, a trader in Bara. "Mangal Bagh is not a bad man. The problems are elsewhere."
Mangal Bagh's Lashkar-e-Islam movement, the main target of the military action so far, is not allied with the Taliban and has not adopted their more brutal tactics, such as suicide bombings and attacks on the army.
Claiming thousands of armed followers, Mangal Bagh over the last three years has developed his movement unchecked by the authorities. He has been allowed to gain control much of the Khyber area, which includes the famous Khyber Pass, a crucial supply line for NATO troops in landlocked Afghanistan.
A mound of bricks and fragments of walls marked the remains of Bagh's compound, just outside Bara. Locals gathered Sunday to inspect the damage, including some of his children, who were ordered out on Saturday when troops arrived to blow up the home.
Mohammad Tayyub, Bagh's 16-year-old son, sitting amid the rubble, said, "We did not resist. We are willing to make such sacrifices for Islam."
Mangal Bagh was away in the remote Tirah Valley, around eight hours travel further west, at the time of the assault, fighting a local rival. He instructed his men not to retaliate but to lay low.
At Bagh's house, Mohammad Illyas, a 20-year-old member of his militia, said: "(George) Bush has the remote control of our rulers. They will do anything he wants."
Although the Khyber operation was welcomed by Afghan officials, Mangal Bagh is not known for sending fighters across the border. The Taliban opposed to Kabul are elsewhere in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, and it remains to be seen whether Pakistan's newfound military reaction in the tribal area extends beyond Khyber to Waziristan and Bajaur, to target the warriors of Baitullah Mehsud, the head of Pakistan's fearsome Taliban movement. Unlike Mangal Bagh, Mehsud's jihad-hardened men would certainly fight back.
Troops have blown up a building belonging to another Khyber extremist religious group, Ansar-ul-Islam. The authorities have refused to spell out whether the operation will go after Mangal Bagh in Tirah or extend beyond Khyber.
"If you wait, many things will become apparent," said Khan, the Federally Administered Tribal Areas administrator.
One Pakistani news channel, Samaa, has started calling its news bulletins "At the Gates," suggesting that civilization is about to be consumed by barbarian hordes of jihadists.
An editorial in Sunday's edition of The News, a Pakistani daily, warned: "Pakistan is slowly but surely being eaten away by the acid of advancing Talibanization. ... The survival of our very way of life is at stake."
In April, McClatchy carried the first interview Mangal Bagh gave to a Western news organization. See the story at U.S. Afghan supply lines depend on Islamic militant
McClatchy Newspapers 2008