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Showdown in Swat

Striking back at the Taliban

It seems that this time around, the unity of command – army, intelligence, paramilitary and the civilian leadership – guarantees durable and credible success. Failure is not an option


By Imtiaz Gul

The Friday Times May 15, 2009

 

Pakistan’s ruling elite came to the conclusion late April that the Taliban menace is incurable through other means and therefore must be eliminated. The repeated betrayals and deception by warlord Fazlullah and his militants convinced the government of the futility of the infamous Swat deal. Both the army and the provincial government finally realised that Sufi Mohammad, a man resurrected from insignificance to buy time for peace, held no sway whatsoever over Fazlullah’s men, who receive operational guidance from Baitullah Mehsud and draw their spiritual guidance from Al Qaeda.

It was therefore also understandable that none of the hardcore militants laid down their arms. Nor did they renounce violence despite assurances to this effect by Sufi Mohammad. This clearly underscored the bitter reality that Al Qaeda has turned Pakistani territories into bases of operations for its anti-US war.

It also counts the Pakistan Army among its list of enemies. And perhaps that is why the army now appears determined to fix the situation. The characterisation of the “miscreants” as rabid dogs by some of the senior generals during the meetings that finalised plans for the Buner and Swat offensives late April also signalled, perhaps, the new realisation that the Taliban are now biting back at their past benefactors.

The Swat conflict, therefore, must be viewed in this context, which easily explains the valley’s gradual descent from a tourist resort into a terror haven. It has been a story of a shady militancy-intelligence nexus at various levels; expedient state appeasement of elements considered crucial to foreign policy objectives; questionable alliances between militants and religio-political groups; and partnerships among criminal gangs and some externally-driven militant groups for resource generation and injecting fear and frustration into the establishment and Pakistani society.

Based on this history, loaded with expedience and tactical manoeuvring, most residents of Malakand Division – as well as FATA – therefore remain sceptical to date on the intentions of the armed forces’ drive against the militants. That the Swat deal allowed Fazlullah’s FM radio to continue broadcasting venomous hate speech against “non-believers”, and that many people close to him were released were some of the reasons that made people question intent.

Many from Swat, Buner and Dir also point out that bombardment rarely takes real militants down. In this environment of speculation and suspicion, the army continues its offensive to “clear and hold” areas currently cut off by the militants.

The latest operation undoubtedly resulted from the frustration of the army and the government with some of the militants who they had hoped would honour the peace deal. But all hopes and calculations flew in the face of those who matter. Despite warnings by people familiar with the internal dynamics of the ongoing militancy, the army and the civilian leadership, led by ANP chief Asfandyar Wali Khan, went ahead with the Swat deal, and in the end had face the consequences.

At the moment, as many as 20,000 army and FC personnel, backed by tanks, artillery, jet fighters and attack helicopters, are involved in the operation in Swat, Dir and Buner, and are pushing towards Mingora at the heart of the Swat valley. Militants had blocked the Mardan-Dargai-Mingora road at various points, including the Chakdara-Kabal intersection.

“The extent of the involvement of all arms of the army and the air force should underscore the seriousness of the operation,” DG ISPR Major General Athar Abbas told TFT, while explaining how special troops were dropped in the Peochar valley, considered Fazlullah’s stronghold. The strategically located valley, surrounded by dense forests, hosts several training camps, centres for suicide bombers, arms depots, torture cells, private jails for kidnapped people and ‘prisoners’, ‘courts’ and offices.

The apparent job of the air-dropped commandos is to “defeat, dismantle, and destroy” the militant network, personified by Fazlullah, whose tentacles extend to Waziristan and across the Durand Line, which Jalaluddin Haqqani, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Mullah Omar’s men continue to cross unhindered.

And herein lies the root of the suspicion – for locals as well as foreigners – the undeclared “cohabitation” between the security forces and various shades of militants in a way prevents the military from conducting an all out operation. The army may be sincere in the drive against the militants, but parts of the intelligence apparatus may still not be totally on board for the reasons stated above.

“It is all about 150 key people – in Swat and FATA – that we need to catch or cull,” says a very senior civilian security official based in Peshawar. “If we had managed in time to take out the central command and control, we would not see [this] massive wave of displacement,” the official added.

Another security official also attributes the indecision and delay of a few weeks in action against the militants to “considerations that are rooted in the past policy of appeasement and sensitivity to…those rogue elements who are not serving the cause of Pakistan any more.”

Segments within the security establishment still appear averse to confrontation. Quoting examples of Sri Lanka, East Pakistan, Afghanistan and FATA, they believe “wherever blood flows, it sows hatred and leaves a trail of destruction, hence conflict must be avoided.”

What these officials nevertheless overlook is that states cannot keep bending backwards to appease and cede territories to people who start striking at the foundation of the very state they are part of.

Obviously, anger and retaliation by these militants is the direct consequence of the current operation, but the army and the government hold no other option but to go after them lock, stock and barrel before they become the “real and potent mortal threat to a liberal and civilised Pakistan”.

Another consequence is the humanitarian crisis in the making through the estimated 1.3 million internally displaced persons (IDPs), another huge burden on the state.

It therefore becomes imperative that all state institutions demonstrate unity and sincerity, and take conclusive measures for taking on the challenges at hand. These measures include fully backing the military action and properly handling the IDPs.

The armed forces must take their operation to its logical end, i.e. deal with the insurgents across the board with an iron hand. The civilian governments in Islamabad and Peshawar, on the other hand, must chalk out comprehensive remedial measures and closely coordinate their plans with international relief agencies, so that it emerges victorious on both counts, i.e. defeating terrorist elements and comprehensively dealing with the IDPs and their rehabilitation.

Such a strategy would be crucial in denying Fazlullah and Baitullah Mehsud easy recruits from the IDP camps, i.e. desperate, frustrated, jobless youths. Some sympathy for the Taliban cause could already be seen at the Jalala camp.

“There are all sorts of Taliban but the followers of Mullah Fazlullah are the best ones,” said a diminutive Naeemullah, as he waited for his registration at the Jalala camp, on the edge of the Mardan-Malakand highway.

This sympathy can quickly translate into active support, if the militants prey on these youngsters and lure them into “jihad against US-led infidels”.

A lot rests on the fate of the current Swat operation. If the military irreparably breaks the back of the hardcore militants, it would inject frustration and demoralisation within Taliban ranks.

One would hope that the spate of violence and the ingress the militants made into Buner, Swat and Dir finally shook up the military establishment into “do or die” action against obscurantist forces that had begun imagining themselves as larger than their actual size. The operation looks intense but only the performance on ground and results would testify as to what extent is it distinguishable from similar operations in the past. It seems that this time around, the unity of command – army, intelligence, paramilitary and the civilian leadership – guarantees durable and credible success. Failure is not an option.

The writer is head of the Centre for Research and Security Studies. Email: imtiaz@crss.pk