PESHAWAR, Pakistan: October 3, 2008. War has come to Pakistan, not just as terrorist bombings, but as full-scale battles, leaving Pakistanis angry and dismayed as the dead, wounded and displaced turn up right on their doorstep.
An estimated 250,000 people have now fled the gunship helicopters, jets, artillery and mortar fire of the Pakistani army, and the assaults, intimidation and rough justice of the Taliban who have dug into Pakistan’s tribal areas.
About 20,000 people are so desperate they have flooded over the border from the Bajaur tribal area to seek safety in war-torn Afghanistan.
Many others are crowding around this northwest Pakistani city, where staff members from the U.N. refugee agency are present at nearly a dozen camps.
The International Committee of the Red Cross flew in a special surgical team from abroad last week to work alongside Pakistani doctors and help treat the wounded in two hospitals, so urgent has the need become.
“This is now a war zone,” said Marco Succi, the spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Not since Pakistan forged an alliance with the United States after 9/11 has the Pakistani army fought its own people on such a scale and at such close quarters to a major city. After years of relative passivity, the army is now engaged in heavy fighting with the militants on at least three fronts.
The sudden engagement of the Pakistani army comes after months in which the United States has heaped criticism, behind the scenes and in public, on Pakistan for not doing enough to take on the militants, and increasingly took action into its own hands with drone strikes and even a raid by Special Operations forces in Pakistan’s tribal areas.
But the army campaign has also unfolded as the Taliban have encroached deeper into Pakistan proper and carried out far bolder terrorist attacks, like the Marriott Hotel bombing last month, which have generated high anxiety among the political, business and diplomatic elite and a feeling that the country is teetering.
In early August, goaded by the American complaints and faced with a nexus of the Taliban and al-Qaida that had become too powerful to ignore, the chief of the Pakistan military, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, opened the front in Bajaur, a Taliban and Qaida stronghold along the Afghan border.
The military was already locked in an uphill fight against the militants in Swat, a more settled area of North-West Frontier Province that was once a middle-class ski resort. Today it is a maelstrom of killing.
“Swat is a place of hell,” said Wajid Ali Khan, a minister in the provincial government who has taken refuge in Peshawar. Khan said he was so afraid that he had not been to his house in Swat for a month.
At a third front, south of Peshawar, around the town of Dera Adam Khel, the army recently recaptured from Taliban control the strategic Kohat tunnel, a road more than a mile long that carries NATO supplies from the port of Karachi to the American and coalition forces in Afghanistan.