ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Pakistan's military Wednesday used air strikes, artillery and helicopter-borne commandos to recapture the main city in the North West Frontier Province district of Buner from Islamist insurgents, but the militants took scores of local security personnel hostage.
At a Wednesday night news conference, President Barack Obama said that he's "gravely concerned about the situation in Pakistan," not about an imminent Taliban takeover, but about what he called the fragility of Pakistan's civilian government and its ability to deliver basic services and "gain the support and the loyalty of their people."
Obama said the Pakistani military has begun to recognize "just in the last few days that the obsession with India as the mortal threat to Pakistan has been misguided, and that their biggest threat right now comes internally."
The president also said he's "confident that we can make sure that Pakistan's nuclear arsenal is secure."
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Other senior U.S. officials, however, expressed concern Wednesday that the Pakistani army's plans for combating the Taliban may be too limited, that the military may lack the will to see the fight through to the end and that Islamic militancy has begun to reach even the upper ranks of the Pakistani army.
"Right now, (the operation) appears to be limited to Buner and that's all. It's not entirely clear how extensive it will be," said a senior U.S. defense official, who requested anonymity in order to speak more freely.
U.S. officials now fear that the Taliban's capture of some 70 police and paramilitary personnel in Buner Tuesday "could derail" the Pakistani army's "conceptual" plans, which envision an operation lasting several months, a senior defense official told McClatchy. The official couldn't be quoted by name due to the sensitivity of the subject.
U.S. officials voiced concern that the military will halt the operation in Buner and not oust the Taliban from the adjoining Swat district, where militants now control the local administration.
The Pakistani military is "executing the initial phases" of a plan that's supposed to last for several months, the senior defense official said. "The question is whether they are going to sustain it. There is the potential that the army will take a lot of casualties and lose its stomach."
Another senior U.S. official said there's also concern that the operation in Buner will repeat a pattern of Pakistani military offensives in the tribal area bordering Afghanistan that ended up strengthening the extremists by turning the populace against the government.
Even if the military succeeds, this official said, the Taliban could return to Buner if Pakistan's civilian government fails to establish its authority and undertake a reconstruction plan.
Buner is 60 miles from Islamabad, the Pakistani capital, and after the Taliban captured the district without firing a shot early this month, the militants sent armed fighters into other districts, raising the possibility that with a few swift moves, they could soon cut the provincial capital of Peshawar off from Islamabad.
Separately, at least 20 people died as ethnic violence erupted in the port megacity of Karachi at the opposite end of the country, adding to the sense of crisis that's engulfing nuclear-armed Pakistan, a key U.S. anti-terror ally.
Nevertheless, Pakistan's government waited to launch the military operation in Buner until a week after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton publicly warned that instability in Pakistan following the Taliban capture of Buner posed a "mortal threat" to the United States and the world.
A Pakistani expert warned that the army's intention to wall off Swat as a safe haven for the Pakistani Taliban was misguided, after the Islamists demonstrated their readiness to use it as a base to capture more territory.
"These are all tactical maneuvers," Farrukh Saleem, the executive director of the Center for Research and Security Studies, an independent policy institute in Islamabad, said of the army's operations. "A head-on conflict is inevitable; it's just a matter of the time and location. If they (the army) wait, it will only become more difficult."
The army's chief spokesman, Athar Abbas, said the army was forced to move into Buner after intercepting a telephone call in which militants were discussing how they'd lay a trap with land mines for the security forces in Buner. As many as 500 guerrillas were rampaging in Buner, looting houses and terrorizing the population.
"A group moved into Buner on 2nd, 3rd April, and despite repeated warnings from the government, they did not leave the area," Abbas said. "Therefore, the government had to order the military and Frontier Corp to remove the militants from Buner."
Wednesday, 18 police and paramilitary were "recovered," Abbas said, without elaborating or disclosing what's thought to have happened to the rest. The Taliban have a history of brutally executing their prisoners.
So far, 50 Taliban have been killed in Buner, along with one soldier, and two of the militants' ammunition dumps were found and destroyed, Abbas said. A similar operation in nearby Dir, which began on Sunday and is largely finished, killed 70-75 Taliban, and cost 10 lives of soldiers, the army said.
Up to now, the Taliban in Swat, where they exercise almost complete control, haven't reacted. In February, the Pakistani government of President Asif Zardari negotiated a peace deal with the Taliban that ended a sporadic 18-month army offensive.
The deal covers Swat and six other districts, including Dir and Buner, and permits the imposition of Islamic law in return for an ill-defined peace. The army said it had acted in Dir and Buner because the Taliban had violated the peace agreement in those districts, but indicated that it wasn't planning a similar operation in Swat.
"Will the army only fight them (the Taliban) if they are noticeably active?" asked Ayesha Siddiqa, a military analyst based in Islamabad. "The army are not trained in fighting counter-insurgency. If it (counter-insurgency) didn't work in Swat, why would it work in Buner?"
Critics charge that the confrontation in the North West Frontier Province could spiral out of control much as Pakistan blundered into an ongoing war with the Taliban in the tribal area in 2004.
"The Pakistan government has no plan, no policy," said Imran Khan, a cricket star-turned politician. "No one can say how this war will end. There is no road map."
(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent. Youssef wrote from Washington. Jonathan S. Landay contributed.)
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