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 Have the Swat Taliban been routed?

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PostSubject: Have the Swat Taliban been routed?   Wed Jun 03, 2009 12:27 am

Have the Swat Taliban been routed?



Wednesday, June 03, 2009
Rahimullah Yusufzai



As expected, the armed forces have regained control of most of Buner and Lower Dir districts. In the Swat valley, the Taliban fighters were outflanked and forced to flee the principal town, Mingora, and other important population centres such as Matta, Khwazakhela, Bahrain, Kalam and Charbagh. The thin presence of the militants in Shangla and Upper Dir don't pose a major threat and could be contained.

There was no way the 4,000-5,000 Taliban militants could have stood up to the far numerous, better-equipped and aerially-supported Pakistan Army troops. Taliban commanders knew their fighters would be decimated if they attempted to take the heavily-armed soldiers head-on. Their best chance was to wage guerilla warfare, supplementing their hit-and-run tactics by sending suicide bombers and planting roadside improvised explosive devices (IEDs) to disrupt the military convoys, slow down the advancing troops and demoralize the men in uniform. Though the Taliban did detonate some IEDs and ambush a few army convoys, including the one at Landaki where the limits of Malakand Agency ends and Swat district begins, they were unable to cause any significant harm to the troops.

But their singularly biggest failure until now has been the absence of the dreaded suicide bomber in the battlefield. The Swati militants, or for that matter their comrades in rest of the Malakand division, never had a steady supply of suicide bombers. There were unconfirmed reports that a network for motivating and training suicide bombers existed in certain Taliban strongholds in Swat, but it appears more likely that majority of the young bombers sent to the valley and other districts of Malakand region weren't locals. Most of them could have come from the training centre of Qari Hussain, a trusted aide to the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) head Baitullah Mehsud, in South Waziristan. Known as the "Ustad-i-Fidayeen," or the teacher of suicide bombers, Qari Hussain is often heard boasting that he could motivate a normal person to become a "fidayee" within half an hour. He has been supplying suicide bombers to different chapters of the TTP in the NWFP and also sending them on missions in Islamabad, Lahore and other cities.

The fact that the Swati Taliban were desperate to seek help from Baitullah Mehsud became evident from an intercepted communication in which Muslim Khan, the spokesman for Maulana Fazlullah, reportedly pleaded with his contact person among militants in South Waziristan for using suicide bombers to strike targets in the cities of Punjab. He wanted attacks on army generals and other officers so that they could feel the pain of losing their family members in retaliation for the military action and death and destruction in Swat. Help did eventually come from Baitullah Mehsud in the shape of the suicide bombing targeting police and ISI offices in Lahore and some terrorist strikes in public places in Peshawar and Dera Ismail Khan. More such attacks could be in the pipeline with the aim to put pressure on the government to call off the military operations, but it is doubtful if Baitullah Mehsud is doing this solely in support of the beleaguered Taliban in Swat, Buner and Dir and not for avenging the latest army action against him in his native South Waziristan. Though one of his commanders, Hakimullah Mehsud, tried to reassure the Swati Taliban by claiming that the Lahore suicide bombing was in retaliation to the military action in Swat, the fact remains that Maulana Fazlullah and his men were expecting greater support from Baitullah Mehsud in their hour of need.

That support didn't materialize and one reason could be the military strategy that was pursued during the crucial stages of the Operation Rah-i-Raast in Malakand division. Under this strategy, a jirga of tribal elders and clerics was sent to Baitullah Mehsud by the political administration of South Waziristan to keep him busy in peace talks. Subsequently, artillery guns were fired to shell his positions in the area populated by the Mehsud tribe to warn him to stop attacking the security forces. It is possible that tribal fighters from Waziristan stopped going to Swat to reinforce the Maulana Fazlullah-led Taliban or those already there started returning home once it became evident that they had a battle at hand in their native South Waziristan. The government also reportedly renewed its peace arrangements with the Maulvi-Nazir led Taliban in Wana in South Waziristan and with Hafiz Gul Bahadur in North Waziristan. This was necessary to prevent Baitullah Mehsud from joining hands and getting help from Maulvi Nazeer and Hafiz Gul Bahadur, two powerful Pakistani Taliban commanders with whom he has had a love-hate relationship. The alliance that the three formed some months ago primarily to fight the US-led coalition forces in Afghanistan didn't really take off due to the mistrust that Maulvi Nazeer and Hafiz Gul Bahadur harbour for Baitullah Mehsud. Unlike Baitullah Mehsud, they don't want to fight the Pakistan Army and would like to focus their attention on aiding and abetting the Afghan Taliban.

It seems the Taliban in Swat and Dir got some badly-needed support from the militants in Bajaur. Some top Taliban commanders could even be hiding in Bajaur, or in Lower and Upper Dir. The government tried to neutralize the Bajaur Taliban by taking the tribal jirga to task for its inability to rein in the militants and threatening another military operation in the Mamond area. The security forces appear to have made some headway in disrupting the Taliban supply routes stretching from Waziristan to Kurram, Orakzai and Khyber tribal areas and onwards to Mohmand, Bajaur, Dir and Swat. The military action now underway in Lower Dir district's Maidan and Adenzai tehsils is crucial in this respect. Though the militants are still active in parts of Lower Dir, they no longer enjoy the freedom of movement that they had until April 25 when the military struck against them. The aerial strikes against the Taliban in the neighbouring Upper Dir district's Doog Darra area were a continuation of the policy to deny them sanctuaries and disrupt their links with each other.

The reason the Taliban failed to put up a fight in the twin towns of Mingora and Saidu Sharif was the collapse of their command structure and disruption of their supply lines. The fighters were no longer getting instructions and supplies because their top commanders were on the run. Though the Taliban leadership claimed they abandoned the fight in Mingora to avoid civilian casualties and destruction of the city, the more likely reason for their retreat was an inability to send reinforcements, ammunition and food to the fighters. In fact, the Taliban fighters had fled Mingora days before the troops arrived and, therefore, the house-to-house battle that was feared didn't take place. The same story was repeated in Malam Jabba and Kalam in Swat and in parts of Buner and Lower Dir. The army for the first time airdropped its commandoes in its two-year battle for control of Swat in the Taliban command centre, Peochar, delivering a blow from which the militants couldn't possibly recover, at least for the time-being.

However, no military action could be a complete success story. If one recalls, the army had driven out the Taliban from most of Swat valley in 2007 and 2008 also but the militants subsequently returned and, in fact, gathered further strength. This time around the military operation is bigger and sustained but at times excessive force was used and the bombing by jet-fighters and gunship helicopters and the shelling by long-range artillery guns not only caused civilian deaths and losses to property but also forced an unmanageable number of people to flee their homes and villages. Uprooted villagers have repeatedly complained of being bombed and shelled in places where there are no militants.

The media blackout helped the army to control the flow of information but it also fuelled speculations and rumours and created doubts about the battleground achievements being made by the military authorities. The fact that almost all top Taliban commanders in Swat have avoided capture or death is also raising questions about the effectiveness and success of the military operation. By offering head-money for the 21 leading Swati Taliban commanders, the ANP-led NWFP government in a way conceded that the military action was incomplete and, therefore, public cooperation was needed to nab or kill the wanted militants.
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