Islamabad: President Barack Obama's special envoy to Pakistan praised the country's "very significant" progress in taking back key areas from Taliban militants and said the US would provide more weapons for the fight as well as badly needed economic aid.
Richard Holbrooke began an official visit on Sunday but heavy rain forced him to postpone a trip to the northwestern Swat Valley, a U.S. Embassy official said on condition of anonymity citing embassy policy. Hundreds of thousands of refugees have begun to return to the valley after the military declared it had mostly driven the Taliban from control of the area.
Holbrooke told reporters travelling with him on Saturday that the Pakistani military's success in ending the Taliban's takeover of Swat was a sign of progress, along with the reported death of the militants' leader, Baitullah Mehsud, in a CIA missile strike on August 5.
"I cannot tell whether the Taliban have been destroyed or dispersed as a result of this operation until I go myself," he said. "But one thing that is quite obvious is that security forces regained Swat and Buner from the Taliban, which itself is very significant."
The Taliban takeover of the valley — a scenic alpine enclave that once boasted Pakistan's only ski resort — had become a symbol of the extremists' expansion in the nuclear-armed, mostly Muslim country of 175 million.
Holbrooke said the US planned to provide more helicopters and other equipment such as night-vision goggles to the Pakistani military to aid the fight, as well as give economic help for the cash-strapped government.
Pakistani forces have been winding down their three-month offensive in Swat but still face pockets of militant resistance and violence.
On Saturday, a suicide bomber rammed an explosives-laden car into a checkpoint, killing at least five people. It was the first suicide attack in Swat since July, when the government said its forces had mostly driven out the Pakistani Taliban from the one-time tourist area in its largest offensive against the militants in years. Hundreds of thousands of the roughly two million people who fled during the fighting have been returning amid tight security.
The suicide attack came a day after Swat residents, who had come home, staged celebrations of Pakistan's Independence Day, waving flags and beating drums in a government-sponsored show of normalcy. In some places, women danced in the streets — an act of defiance, since the hard-line Islamist Taliban banned women from public during their rule over the valley.
Pakistan has said troops will remain in Swat until the fighters of Maulana Fazlullah — a notorious Taliban leader whose thousands of followers are blamed for the violence — are eliminated. Although the military says it has killed or captured a number of Fazlullah's commanders, he has evaded capture.
Saturday's suicide attack showed that the Taliban still can strike periodically, though they probably won't be able to retake any territory as long as Army stays in Swat, political and defence analyst Hasan Askari Rizvi said.
"It is a strong message from Taliban. They want to convey that it is not over," Rizvi said. "They want to show that they are not sleeping, and they cannot tolerate people, including women, going into the streets and dancing as happened yesterday on Independence Day."
First Published: Sunday, August 16, 2009, 17:25