On war zone tour, Pakistani army claims that 'collateral damage' is minimal

McClatchy NewspapersMay 22, 2009 

KHWAZAKHELA, Pakistan — From the window of a Pakistani army helicopter, the Swat valley looked serene and inviting, not at all like a battlefield in the country's self-described fight for survival against Taliban extremists.

Accounts from some of the 1.5 million refugees who've fled Swat have painted a picture of destroyed villages and burning countryside under massive Pakistani army bombardment. Two weeks into the offensive, however, the military felt confident enough Friday to take foreign reporters on a guided tour of Swat to refute those claims.

A helicopter flight along the vast Swat valley, the site of the government's stand against a brutal Islamist militia that had overrun the northwestern district, seemed to support the military's contention that it's been waging a counterinsurgency operation, not a massive offensive to level the place.

Swat's fruit orchards, wheat fields, forested hills and neat little towns appeared mostly unscathed.

At Baine Baba Ziarat, a hilltop near the town of Khwazakhela in upper Swat that was captured from the Taliban two days earlier, a panoramic view of the valley revealed little sign of active engagement.

Aside from occasional distant rumblings, apparently fire from a helicopter gunship, there was no sign of fighter jet sorties or artillery fire, no smoke rising from towns or hillside hideouts and little to signify that a war was on against thousands of heavily armed and battle-hardened guerrillas.

Several areas said to be still under Taliban control could be seen, including the towns of Charbagh and Mingora, the resort of Malam Jabba and, far off, the Peochar valley, the epicenter of the extremists in Swat.

"Civilian collateral damage is very, very low, not even in double figures," said Maj. Gen. Sajjad Ghani, who's leading the army operation in the northern half of Swat, referring to the civilian death toll in the area under his command. "We don't use air force, artillery, mortars on built-up areas."

The military account, however, is at odds with the stories told by residents who escaped the war zone, who had tales of the army shelling houses and streets and whole families being wiped out. Patients from Swat at the nearest major hospital outside the battle area, in the town of Mardan, suggested a civilian toll many times greater than the army thinks.

The treatment of civilians is a subject of concern in Washington and at home.

Pakistan launched its offensive May 7 to "eliminate" the Taliban from Swat, a valley just 100 miles from Islamabad, with open U.S. backing. Ghani said it would take no more than two to three months more to clear upper Swat, possibly less, a faster timetable than many had predicted when the campaign started. That would relieve the enormous humanitarian crisis caused by the exodus of most of Swat's population.

In Matta, the biggest town in Swat so far to be cleared of extremists, the army said, it hadn't damaged a single home. From the air, Matta looked intact, and coming just ahead of a planned assault on the Taliban in Mingora, the major town in Swat, where thousands of civilians are thought to remain, the army underlined its significance.

"Matta was the first town cleared by an infantry operation. It's a test case," said Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, the army's chief spokesman, who accompanied reporters. "But zero collateral damage can never be achieved."

The army said that it had surrounded the Taliban in their remaining major strongholds, including Mingora and Peochar. Ghani pledged to move troops to the rescue of towns in the far north of Swat shortly: "It's just a question of days."

On Friday, townspeople from Bahrain in the north of Swat staged a protest march to the nearest army post about six miles away, near Madyan, demanding that the army provide food or allow the population to flee. Some 200,000 people are trapped in the upper reaches of the valley, with food fast running out, the Taliban entrenched and their exit routes jammed by army blockades. According to Bahrain residents on the march, at least 2,500 people participated, but the army turned them back.

Baine Baba Ziarat, a series of connected hilltops, was an important Taliban command and control center and training school, the army said. Army forces won the battle against 300 defending Taliban, most of whom eventually melted away as the soldiers advanced up the hills. The Taliban also had dug out caves, and there was a hut that had been used as a kitchen.

The army showed reporters a formal register of attendance and exercise books, in which recruits evidently had been taking notes. A half-dozen books started with the same notes from a lesson on "the principles of waging guerrilla warfare," suggesting that all had attended the same class, evidence that the Taliban have been conducting basic training for recruits.

(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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