Page last updated at 16:04 GMT, Wednesday, 20 May 2009 17:04 UK

Q&A: Pakistan's Swat offensive

Soldiers of Pakistani paramilitary force stand guard at an entry post to northwest of Pakistan, in Attock, Pakistan
Pakistani paramilitary forces at an entry post near the North West Frontier

As Pakistan's military steps up an offensive against the Taliban, the BBC's Shoaib Hasan answers key questions about the conflict.

Where is the fighting taking place?

The fighting started in Pakistan's tribal areas located between the country's North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and the border with Afghanistan.

It has since spread south and east across the NWFP into what is known as the settled areas. The tribal areas are directly administered by the central government, while the administration of the settled areas falls to the province in question.

The tribal areas have a separate system of justice, while the settled areas follow regular Pakistan law derived from colonial British law. Currently, the fighting is taking place in the Swat valley, which is part of regular Pakistan territory.

Who is fighting whom?

Pakistani security forces are battling Taliban militants and their al-Qaeda allies.

In a few cases, the militants have also fought amongst each other, one group alongside the Pakistani army, another on the side of the foreign al-Qaeda elements.

There have also been reports of minor clashes between the al-Qaeda cadre, although these are very rare.

Who are the Taliban?

The Taliban emerged in the early 1990s in northern Pakistan following the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan.

It is commonly believed that they first appeared in religious seminaries - mostly paid for by money from Saudi Arabia - which preached a hard line from of Sunni Islam.

A predominantly Pashtun movement, they first came to prominence in Afghanistan in the autumn of 1994.

The Taliban's promise - in Pashtun areas straddling Pakistan and Afghanistan - was to restore peace and security and enforce Sharia, or Islamic law, once in power.

In both countries they introduced or supported Islamic punishments - such as public executions of convicted murderers and adulterers and amputations of those found guilty of thefts.

They show a similar disdain for television, music and cinema and disapprove of girls aged 10 and over from going to school.

The attention of the world was drawn to the Taliban in Afghanistan following the attacks on the World Trade Centre in September 2001.

The Taliban regime was accused of providing a sanctuary to Osama bin Laden and the al-Qaeda movement.

Soon after 9/11 the Taliban were ejected from power in Afghanistan by a US-led coalition, although their leader Mullah Mohammad Omar was not captured - neither was Osama bin Laden.

In recent years the Taliban have re-emerged in Afghanistan and grown far stronger in Pakistan, where observers say there is loose co-ordination between different Taliban factions and militant groups.

The main Pakistani faction is led by Baitullah Mehsud, head of Tehrik Taliban Pakistan (TTP) which is reputed to comprise about 20,000 militants.

However observers warn against over-stating the existence of one unified insurgency against the Pakistani state.

What about the drone strikes?

The missile attacks by unmanned US aircraft known as drones have added another facet to the conflict in northern Pakistan.

The missile attacks are principally targeted at high-profile Taliban and al-Qaeda leaders, as well as training camps and hideouts.

The attacks have risen since 2008 and have led to a public outcry in Pakistan. Many see them as a breach of the country's sovereignty.

But Pakistan's government has not lodged any serious protests against the attacks, and they are believed to be carried out with its tacit approval.

Why is the fighting taking place?

When the fighting first started, the Taliban were principally a sub-division of those fighting in Afghanistan.

Pakistani security forces were sent into the tribal areas to kill and capture senior al-Qaeda leaders, who were suspected to have taken refuge there.

These included Osama Bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahri. They were also given the task of preventing cross border attacks by the militants against Nato forces in Afghanistan.

They had some success in the former goal, but failed completely in the latter objective. But the operations have given rise to more militancy and the spectre of the Pakistani Taliban.

These are now a separate entity from their Afghan brethren. They seek to convert Pakistan into their version of a state based on Sharia law.

Is the Pakistan army serious in its objectives?

There have been a lot of questions raised about the commitment of the Pakistan's security establishment. In particular, the role of the country's powerful but shadowy Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency has been the subject of much debate.

Most of it is focused on the agency's relationship with the Taliban. The Taliban were very much a creation of the ISI as part of the army's doctrine of 'strategic depth'.

This doctrine saw Afghanistan as a friendly satellite that would give Pakistani forces geographic strategic depth in case of war with its perennial rival India and its much more powerful military.

The army also saw the Taliban as an instrument in Pakistan becoming a player in the new great game for energy resources in Central Asia. While post 9/11, the country ostensibly threw in its lot with the US, many believe the army and the ISI continue to secretly support the Taliban.

While all Pakistani authorities deny this on the record, many senior security personnel have admitted some support to the Taliban.

They point to the growing influence of India in Afghanistan, and say Pakistan cannot allow this 'encirclement' as it directly imparts on its national security.

What does the US want in all of this?

The United States stated aim is to eliminate Al Qaeda from the region, kill or arrest its senior leadership, defeat the Taliban and help establish sustainable democracies in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

It also wants to ensure that Islamic extremists do not take control of Pakistan and its stock pile of nuclear weapons. But its policies since 9/11 have done little to promote these aims.

Most Pakistani analysts see the US as a fickle ally. They point out that its policies in the region have been myopic and based on vengeance.

The analysts maintain that waging a war in Iraq diverted precious resources away from what was the real conflict, in Afghanistan. They say this allowed the Taliban and al-Qaeda to reassemble and strengthen their ranks.

The current US administration admits some of these 'mistakes' and has now put Pakistan-Afghanistan on the top of its agenda. But the analysts fear this maybe a case of too little too late, and that the situation may already be lost.

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