Pakistan’s military offensive on rebels in the Swat Valley marks a dangerous turn for a region reeling from the US occupation of Afghanistan.
The attacks are part of a drive to dislodge insurgents, known as the Pakistani Taliban, from areas north of the capital Islamabad.
This comes after a direct request by the US for action from the Pakistani government against the rebels. Last week the White House summoned Pakistan’s president Asif Ali Zardari and the Afghan leader Hamid Karzai to Washington.
US president Barack Obama ordered both countries to up the stakes in the war against the insurgency. The Pakistani offensive was launched the next day.
Obama is trapped in a dilemma created by George Bush. He can either retreat from Afghanistan and accept a humiliating defeat for US imperialism or attempt to break the stalemate by spreading the war into neighbouring countries.
Obama opted to keep the foreign secretary originally appointed by Bush, Robert Gates, and by extension plans for a surge in the war. This is known as the Afghanistan-Pakistan, or Afpak, strategy.
The opening phase of this strategy designated the Swat Valley as the “rear base” of the Afghan insurgency.
The phrase once described the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. These territories are now the new front line.
This offensive marks the deepening of the US war in Pakistan. The Pakistani army claims that some 700 militants have been killed – figures which are impossible to verify.
The numbers of civilians who have been killed in the aerial bombardments and artillery barrages remains hidden.
But the scale of the attacks has created a refugee crisis. Some 1.5 million people, 70 percent of the Swat Valley population, are now refugees. Civilians have been forced to pay extortionate sums of money to leave the war zone.
Those who could not afford to pay attempted to flee on foot, only to be forced back when the army imposed a curfew.
Those who have been able to escape have been herded into a series of overcrowded camps where government aid is sufficient to cover food for only one day.
Reports emerging from the region say that the army has cut water and electricity supplies as well as telephone lines.
The Pakistani army claims the offensive has been successful.
Yet during a similar operation in 2007 the insurgents melted away in the face of the superior military force, only to return later in greater numbers – their ranks swollen by young men furious at the intensity of the assault.
Attention is now turning to Baluchestan, the region in western Pakistan which borders the restive Afghan province of Helmand.
A large proportion of the 17,000 extra US troops pouring into Afghanistan are heading for Helmand. They will launch a two pronged offensive – the eradication of poppy fields that provide an income for impoverished farmers, and a military offensive to push Afghan insurgents into Baluchestan.
Whatever the short-term outcome of this offensive, in the long-term the US and its Pakistani allies are risking further and deeper destabilisation of the region.
The US has been forced to admit that it killed around 130 people when it bombed a village in western Afghanistan last week. Warplanes targeted homes packed with people who were sheltering from a battle between insurgents and occupation forces.
Local officials say 95 of the victims were under the age of 18.
The raid in the Farah province in the west of the country is one of the bloodiest attacks on civilians since the 2001 invasion.
The killings have triggered huge anger among Afghans.
Afghan MPs are now demanding a limit to the number of troops allowed in the country and for all foreign soldiers to be liable for any deaths under the country’s laws.
As the parliament closed down in protest at the massacre, one MP warned of “uprisings against foreign forces”.