The Swat offensive

by Rashed Rahman

The military offensive in Swat Valley and surrounding districts of Malakand Division has more or less completed its initial phase. This may be a good moment therefore to assess the operation so far.

There is little doubt that there was a fundamental shift in the attitude of the army before such an unprecedented military offensive could be launched against the Taliban whom the military until recently was fond of referring to as its ‘strategic assets’. What led to this ‘change of heart’?

Under Musharraf as Chief of Army Staff (COAS), the duality in policy of capturing/killing Al-Qaeda members to assuage US post-9/11 rage and preserving the Afghan Taliban continued from after 9/11 until Musharraf’s ouster from power in September 2008. Along the way, US pressure to do something about the safe havens Al-Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban enjoy in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and which had permitted them to transform the relatively low intensity insurgency in progress since 2001 in Afghanistan into a more effective guerrilla war (helped enormously by Bush’s blundering into Iraq in March 2003), forced Musharraf in 2004 to send the army into FATA for the first time in Pakistan’s history. That campaign was a disaster. The army’s contingents were ambushed and literally cut to pieces. Clearly General Head Quarters (GHQ), the Pakistani military’s apex command, had forgotten the lessons of the British colonialists in fighting the Pashtun tribals in these areas.

The military debacle persuaded the army to sue for peace with the local militants in Waziristan and other tribal areas. Such agreements were totally to the benefit of the militants and humiliating for the ‘mighty’ Pakistan army’s pride. Nevertheless, the army swallowed its gall in the interests of trying to persuade the Pakistani Taliban to support the struggle in Afghanistan rather than challenge the writ of the Pakistani state. The watchful US military command in Afghanistan did not try to disguise its disquiet at these so-called peace agreements since it detected that an easing of the military pressure on the Pakistani side of the Pak-Afghan border meant increased attacks on their and NATO’s troops in Afghanistan. Hence at every given opportunity, they attempted to sabotage such agreements through missile strikes that took out the local Taliban commanders who had signed such deals with the Pakistan military. The Pakistani military still hoped (consistently since 2001) that the US and NATO would tire of the ‘futile’ and endless struggle in Afghanistan and GHQ and the Afghan Taliban would then easily step back into the relative power vacuum in Kabul, aided and abetted by their Pakistani Taliban facilitators and hosts. This was a serious underestimation of US determination not to repeat the mistake of allowing Afghanistan to slip once again into the Taliban and Al-Qaeda’s hands. Whatever other differences in policy Obama may have had with the outgoing Bush administration (for example on Iraq), on Afghanistan he declared for seeing the task through, albeit with a more nuanced policy.

In the interim, Musharraf and the Pakistani military continued on a strategy of raising the cost of the Western presence in Afghanistan through the Afghan Taliban, extracting in the process $ 11 billion dollars for the Pakistani military over eight years without any proper accounting of where this money went. Suspicions in the US Congress that the bulk of this money went to provide weapons for the Pakistani military to bolster its conventional arms balance against India have led to delays in and calls for accountability and transparency for any future US aid to the Pakistani military.

Under Musharraf, the Pakistani military came to be hated as never before by the people of Pakistan. The military’s overbearing attitudes, corruption and control of state and society under Musharraf evoked great resentment amongst the Pakistani people. When General Ashfaq Kayani took over as COAS last year, he and the military’s top brass embarked on a refurbishing of the military’s public image. This was conducted through an ostensible distancing of the army from politics and cooperation with the elected civilian government. The past collaboration between the military and the Pakistani Taliban incrementally gave way to a firmer posture of not allowing the Pakistani Taliban to challenge the writ of the state. The failure of the so-called peace agreement in Swat (a chronicle of a failure foretold) cleared the path for the current military offensive in Swat, backed as it now is by a changed public perception of the Taliban and their brutalities.

As for the offensive, the military has not cared a fig for the people of Swat, using heavy artillery, helicopter gunships and the air force to blast their way into the Valley from three directions at the cost of three million people’s displacement. These people fled for their lives in the face of this indiscriminate bombardment, which arguably saved many soldiers’ lives, but at the cost of so many tragic stories of local people killed, children and the old having to be abandoned, and the continuing misery of the displaced in camps and amongst host communities. The military advanced behind this heavy bombardment into Swat from the south, east and west. Despite this, they failed to cut off the escape routes of the Taliban (an inherently difficult task in such mountainous terrain). The result is that the Taliban leadership has by and large escaped, probably into surrounding mountains and FATA. That is the harbinger of a protracted war, especially since the military is now planning an offensive into South Waziristan, the stronghold of Baitullah Mehsud, the head of the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan.

The Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) will have a tough time even after returning to their shattered homes, with no economic opportunities, smashed infrastructure and a huge reconstruction and rehabilitation task, which on the evidence of the government’s capabilities of looking after the IDPs promises to be another disaster to add to the long list of Pakistan’s miseries.

The situation is certainly at a turning point, especially since the inventors and mentors of the Taliban, the Pakistani military, has finally decided that the challenge to the state is too grave to brook any further prevarication. That does not, however, rule out the possibility that some of the Taliban may be persuaded to forego their challenge to the Pakistani state in exchange for being spared and diverted once again to the ‘export’ of jihad into Afghanistan and Kashmir. Whether this fond hope of GHQ materializes or suffers the same fate as their best laid plans of the last four decades to control Afghanistan in the name of ‘strategic depth’ and liberate Indian-administered Kashmir through jihad, only time will tell. However, what can be surmised at this juncture is that the whole jihad export enterprise has suffered a crippling blow. Whether the blow is fatal or something can be and will be salvaged from the ashes, it is difficult to say at this juncture. The Taliban having taken to hitting back throughout Pakistan through terror indicates that we are at the beginning of a long and bitter civil war whose outcome will determine the future direction of state and society. The present conjuncture represents a turn from the domination of the national agenda by the military and its Taliban cat’s paws. Without overcoming this phenomenon, Pakistani state and society cannot hope to clear the way for a more enlightened and hopeful future.

The writer is an acclaimed journalist and political analyst. This article is a part of his email series by the title of Pakistan Political Review. He can be reached at: rrahman@nexlinx.net.pk

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