ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – When Taliban fighters swept into the remote Tirah Valley of northern Pakistan last month, grabbing a remote but strategic area that was previously known for criminal activity, Pakistan's military seized a chance to bloody the insurgents before they dug in.
But the counteroffensive took a dismal turn over the past week, as the Taliban struck back with a combination of guerrilla tactics and dexterous tribal politics, defending their new perch and increasing their ability to disrupt Pakistan's approaching election.
After five days of fighting, at least 26 soldiers, many from the elite commandos unit, have been killed, according to several senior security and tribal officials. Dozens of Taliban militants have also died, they said.
"Resistance is stiff," said one of those officials in Peshawar, speaking on customary condition of anonymity.
The battle for Tirah, a mountain redoubt of steep walls backing onto the border with Afghanistan in the Khyber agency, highlights the complexity of the war that has slowly engulfed Pakistan's tribal belt over the past five years.
While the army has faced stiff American criticism for its failure to crack down on extremists in North Waziristan who wage war and terrorism abroad, it is simultaneously engaged in bruising battle with the Pakistan Taliban in other corners of the tribal belt.
There, in an echo of British military campaigns against tribal fighters a century ago, the Taliban use their knowledge of the terrain and some adroit tribal negotiations to outwit a militarily superior enemy.
The Taliban fled into the Tirah Valley in mid-March after tough clashes with the army in the neighboring district of Orakzai. They surprised military officials by quickly vanquishing a pro-government militia stationed in the Tirah, and by forging an opportunistic alliance with a powerful local warlord, Mangal Bagh, who had previously fought the Taliban.
"It took us by surprise," one senior official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The army launched a two-pronged assault on Tirah last Friday. But it soon took heavy casualties, after troops from the elite Special Services Group commando unit ran into an ambush after clearing a village, a senior tribal official said. "Most of those killed so far are from the S.S.G.," he said.
Since then the army has hit back hard, using artillery and helicopter gunship strikes. The army press office said Monday that 23 soldiers and 110 militants had been killed. Privately, officials put the militant death toll in the dozens.
The fighting has displaced an estimated 43,000 civilians, largely into neighboring tribal districts or the regional capital, Peshawar, where refugees have arrived with harrowing tales of flight. At least 10 elderly people and pregnant women died as they fled their homes, according to community leaders.
Suddenly, Mr. Bagh has become a rising star in the militant firmament, leaving NATO supply lines through Khyber agency – an area partly under his control – exposed to new attack. And the offensive has extended the Taliban's reach across the northwest at a sensitive time, as national elections approach.
The integrity of the May 11 poll was already in doubt across most of the tribal belt and parts of adjoining Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Province, said Khalid Aziz, a former provincial chief secretary. He estimated that 41 of the 99 directly elected seats in the province could be affected by Taliban violence or intimidation.
A foothold in Tirah gives the Taliban powerful additional influence, he added: "Although they will not participate in this election, they will be playing politics."
Until now the valley, which has little arable land, was best known as a center of smuggling, gun running and hashish production. In Peshawar, displaced farmers have spoken openly of their distress at potentially losing their hashish stocks, Mr. Aziz, the retired official, said.
"They told me they were in debt with the drug traffickers, and now they would not be able to repay them," he said.
Back inside the valley, the army faces the tough task of dislodging the Taliban from the high ground. "But we cannot afford to leave the operation halfway through. It will have to be taken to its logical end," one senior security official said.
Otherwise, he warned, the valley could become a new safe haven for Taliban fighters fleeing fighting in Afghanistan or other tribal areas. "They need a space to regroup and recognize," he said. "Now they have got one."world
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.