CHINGLAI, Pakistan — The Pakistani army's assault against Islamic militants in Buner, in northwest Pakistan, is flattening villages, killing civilians and sending thousands of farmers and villagers fleeing from their homes, residents escaping the fighting said Monday.
"We didn't see any Taliban; they are up in the mountains, yet the army flattens our villages," Zaroon Mohammad, 45, told McClatchy as he walked with about a dozen scrawny cattle and the male members of his family in the relative safety of Chinglai village in southern Buner. "Our house has been badly damaged. These cows are now our total possessions."
Mohammad's and other residents' accounts of the fighting contradict those from the Pakistani military and suggest that the government of President Asif Ali Zardari is rapidly losing the support of those it had set out to protect.
The heavy-handed tactics are ringing alarm bells in Washington, where the Obama administration is struggling to devise a strategy to halt the militants' advances. Officials Monday talked about the need to train the Pakistani military, which has long been fixated on fighting armored battles with India, in counterinsurgency warfare, but it may be too late for that.
Navy Adm. Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters Monday that the Pakistani army in recent years has undertaken "bursts of fighting and engagement" fighting insurgents, but that its operations were "not sustained" by follow-up measures.
The army is now using force, but it also must hold and rebuild the area it conquers, he said. "There's a military piece" to the operation, he said, "but there also needs to be a hold and build aspect of it."
Another U.S. official, who closely tracks Pakistan developments, said the Pakistan army is "just destroying stuff. They have zero ability to deliver (aid) services."
"They hold villages completely accountable for the actions of a few, and that kind of operation produces a lot of (internally displaced persons) and a lot of angst," said a senior defense official. The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
In Buner, the Pakistani military appears to be losing public support in a stridently anti-Taliban district whose residents had raised their own militia to defend themselves against the militants, who last month seized control of the district about 60 miles from Islamabad, the capital.
Mohammad, who'd walked for two days with his cattle to escape the offensive against the Taliban, and other farmers accused the military of using poorly directed artillery and air power to pound civilian areas.
"They shouldn't use the army in this (indiscriminate) way. They should be targeted at the Taliban," said Saed Afsar Khan, who was leaving Buner with 18 members of his family and two cows. He estimated that the army had destroyed 80 of the 400 houses in his village of Kawga, near the key battlefield of Ambela.
"I don't think they've killed even one Taliban," he said. "Only ordinary people."
As the fighting raged in Buner, a bigger battle appears likely to erupt in neighboring Swat. Late Monday, fierce gun battles broke out between the army and Taliban in the streets of Mingora, the district's main town, and a controversial three-month-old peace deal between the government and the Taliban in Swat is disintegrating.
The Taliban were reported to have surrounded 46 police officers at the local electrical grid station. Earlier in the day, they ambushed a military convoy in Swat, killing one soldier and wounding two others.
The Pakistani army waited some 25 days after the Taliban stormed into Buner from Swat before launching their response, which television pictures show involves tanks and helicopter gunships.
"Why did they not nip the evil in the bud? This is criminal negligence," said Sahibzada, a college teacher, who goes by one name, in Palodand village, just south of Buner, where he helps organize relief to those fleeing from the fighting.
"They have caused huge financial losses for those who've been forced to flee and caused hatred among those people for their government."
Locals said that a key grievance was an order given by the government commissioner for the Malakand area, which includes Buner, to disband the anti-Taliban militia soon after the insurgents entered Buner.
The delay in moving the armed forces against the extremists in Buner may have allowed them to entrench themselves and mass sufficient weapons and men to put up stiff resistance. The Taliban have managed to take hostage some 2,000 villagers in the Pir Baba area in the north of Buner, the army confirmed Monday.
The Pakistan army wouldn't confirm civilian casualties or damage to civilian villages.
"There are no reports I have of any civilian casualties," said Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, the army's chief spokesman. "Or any collateral damage. We have made maximum efforts to avoid it."
One reason why civilian casualties are likely is that government officials gave no instructions to ordinary people about how to leave the district, and many were confused about the timing of the curfew, those fleeing said. A cause of further frustration was that little or no preparation was made to accommodate those who'd inevitably be displaced by the fighting.
In southern Buner, in the Khudokhel area, on the road out to the nearest town of Swabi, there was no sign of any government-sponsored relief effort. Residents of villages along the road turned out instead, offering food and drink to weary travelers, and help with transportation onward. Those with spare rooms or buildings offered them to the displaced. Villagers in Chinglai, about an hour's drive into Buner from Swabi, are housing 20 families.
There are no reliable figures so far for how many people have fled Buner. Evacuees describe the district, which had a population of some 500,000, as having practically been emptied.
According to the al Khidmat Foundation, an Islamic charity, more than 150,000 people have taken the road south to Swabi alone. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, the refugee arm of the United Nations, has registered around 18,000 people, but counting is tricky because almost none of the displaced have gone into the camps that are being set up for them outside Buner.
(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent. Jonathan S. Landay and Nancy A. Youssef contributed to this article.)