Pakistani troops retreat after Taliban onslaught in Bajaur

Pakistan's paramilitary Frontier Corps retreated from the Loisam region in the Bajaur tribal after heavy fighting with the Taliban over the past four days. Scores of Pakistani paramilitary troops have been reported killed and scores more captured.

The fighting in Bajaur began on Aug. 7 after government forces moved to occupy the Loisam region. A large Taliban force surrounded and ambushed a 200-man convoy of Frontier Corps forces moving into the region.

Heavy fighting broke out after the Frontier Corps troops attempted to break the encirclement. Pakistani aircraft, helicopters, and artillery joined the fray, reportedly causing heavy casualties among the large Taliban force, estimated at several hundred fighters

The Frontier Corps claimed more than 100 Taliban fighters were killed in the fighting. But Taliban spokesman Mullah Omar disputed the charge, saying no more than 10 of its fighters were killed.

The Frontier Corps also said eight troops were killed and 15 wounded during the four-day battle. But a variety of sources told the Pakistani media that the Frontier Corps was bloodied during the heavy fighting.

Mullah Omar claimed between 80 and 100 paramilitary troops were killed, and another 35 were taken hostage. A security source told Dawn that 55 Frontier Corps troops were taken captive. The Taliban turned over the bodies of 22 troops to tribal elders.

The Frontier Corps force was nearly routed, taking an estimated 60 percent casualties if the Taliban’s account holds up. The Pakistani military has hidden casualties taken during fighting in the tribal areas in the past.

The Taliban also claimed to have captured two armored vehicles as well as ammunition trucks. In all 25 vehicles were reported to have been captured by the Taliban and another 10 were set fire.

The remaining Frontier Corps force broke the Taliban cordon and fled to their base in Khar, the seat of the tribal agency. Frontier Corps and military officials described the retreat as "a strategy" and refused to admit defeat. “We cannot say we have failed," said military spokesman Major General Athar Abbas.

The Taliban quickly began consolidating their positions, and hundreds of fighters are digging in on the outskirts of Khar near the Frontier Corps headquarters. Taliban forces are also seizing some abandoned check posts and blowing up others along the road to Peshawar.

Bajaur fell under Taliban control after a series of peace deals were signed beginning in 2007. Loisam is near the town of Damadola, where US Predator unmanned aircraft targeted Ayman al Zawahiri in January 2006.

The Bajaur tribal agency is al Qaeda’s command and control hub for operations across the border in northeastern Afghanistan. Bajaur is run by Faqir Mohammed, who assumed control of the radical Tehrik Nifaz-e-Sharia Mohammadi (the TNSM, or the Movement for the Implementation of Mohammad's Sharia Law) after the arrest of Sufi Mohammed.

The TNSM is known as the "Pakistani Taliban" and is the group behind the ideological inspiration for the Afghan Taliban. The TNSM sent over 10,000 fighters into Afghanistan to fight US forces during the opening stages of Operation Enduring Freedom in late 2001 and 2002. Sufi was jailed by the Pakistani government after the TNSM was banned. He was later released as part of a peace deal in May 2008.

Faqir has close links with the Pakistani and Afghan Taliban, as well as senior al Qaeda leaders. He is believed to shelter senior al Qaeda leaders such as Ayman al Zawahiri. The US has conducted at least two airstrikes against safe houses and camps run by Faqir since January 2006.

In December 2007, Faqir rolled the TNSM under the banner of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, or the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan, which is led by South Waziristan Taliban commander Baitullah Mehsud. Faqir is also second in command of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan.

For background on the recent fighting in Bajaur, see:

Pakistani forces clash with Taliban in Bajaur, Aug. 7, 2008
Fighting escalates in Pakistan's Bajaur tribal agency, Aug. 9, 2008