Why Pakistan is winning ITS war against the Taliban

November 22, 2009 at 2:12 am (Pakistan, Politics) ()


By David Rose

Daily Mail UK

In Mingora, the city of 250,000 people that was until recently the headquarters of Pakistan’s Swat valley Taliban, the shopping centre is heaving.

‘Bloody Chowk’, the crossroads where the militants used to leave the butchered bodies of their victims every night, is once again merely a mini-roundabout, surrounded by camera and shoe shops.

Further up the valley, a scenically idyllic 100-mile seam of fertility dividing the Northwest Frontier mountains, the girls’ schools that were blown up by the Taliban are reopening, with lessons taking place in tents. 

PakistaniSuccess: Pakistani army soldiers with captured militants at Lower Dir in the Swat valley

The barbers ordered to stop shaving beards on pain of death are back in business, and Mullah FM, the radio station used by the Taliban leader Maulana Fazlullah to broadcast his extremist sermons, is off the air.

Western leaders often insinuate that there is something half-hearted about Pakistan’s struggle against those responsible not only for bringing terror to Swat but providing safe havens for the Taliban fighting in Afghanistan, to say nothing of the series of devastating bombings in the big Pakistani cities.

Last month, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton suggested that some in Pakistan’s government must know the whereabouts of Al Qaeda leaders such as Osama Bin Laden, still said by some to be hiding in the frontier’s tribal areas.

Gordon Brown has repeatedly urged the Pakistanis to ‘do more’, claiming that three-quarters of terrorist plots in Britain have links to Pakistan.

Yet last week he also admitted that, across the Afghan border, some of the territory the British Army took at such terrible cost last summer is already back under Taliban control.

As I walked unmolested through the alleys of Mingora’s bazaar, his comments provoked some uncomfortable thoughts.

First the good news: the Swat example shows that the Taliban are not invincible, and that it is possible to fight a counter-insurgency against them and win.

Unfortunately, however, the very reasons Pakistan appears to be doing quite well, both in Swat and in the current military operation further south in Waziristan, make the prospects of Nato success in Afghanistan more remote.

Moreover, one of the Pakistanis’ evident strengths – a clear strategic focus with operations of limited scope that tackle the enemy one area at a time – is woefully lacking in Afghanistan.

‘You have to recognise the limits of your power. When you try to attain too many objectives simultaneously, you end up attaining nothing,’ General Athar Abbas, the Pakistan army’s chief spokesman, told me.

‘If you don’t have clarity from the beginning, especially about what to do after you capture somewhere, you will run into serious problems – and that is what’s happening across the border.

‘You have to retain your successes, and the only way to do that is with popular support.’

Life in Mingora isn’t yet back to normal: the death and destruction have simply been too great. Fazlullah used to be a chairlift operator and one of the first things the Taliban did was to blow up the Swat valley’s ski facilities.

Skirmishes continue in outlying areas and there is still a curfew. But the progress is unmistakable.

When I last visited Pakistan in June, at the height of the Swat campaign, there were more than two million internally displaced persons (IDPs) living on the scorching plains in camps and relatives’ spare rooms.

But a remarkably efficient army-led transport and reconstruction effort has meant more than 95 per cent of them have been back home for weeks.

More impressive is the fact that despite having been IDPs, and in many cases having once been in favour of the Taliban, few Swat people appear to want them back.

‘When Fazlullah started his broadcasts, he had a lot of support,’ said Shiraz Khan, a local TV cameraman. ‘Not now. Their methods have been exposed.’

One night, he said, he was woken by the shrieks of his next-door neighbour. ‘The Taliban had come to her house and, in front of her and the rest of the family, they were murdering her oldest son and her husband by cutting their throats.’

‘When you see a dead body, its cut-off head lying on its chest, it’s a truly terrible sight,’ said a local professor, who asked not to be named.

‘The people supported the Taliban because they felt the state was not giving them justice. But now they are finished.’

The army is still in Mingora, but responsibility for law and order is back with the police.
‘The community is helping us with information,’ said Qazi Farooq, the district chief.

He said that ‘regular police work’ had led to the capture of dozens of militants, 60 of whom have already been charged in the criminal courts with crimes including murder and blowing up bridges.

In the remoter areas, ‘lashkars’ – tribal militias – have been formed to root out the last Taliban. If only the British Army had encountered similar reactions in Helmand, Afghanistan.

Last Friday, when I visited a new IDP centre established at a cricket ground in Dera Ismail Khan on the South Waziristan border, I heard the main reason why starkly expressed.

The IDPs there come from the same Pathan tribe, the Mehsuds, which is also the main source of the local Taliban.

But having been brutalised in a similar fashion to the people of Swat, several men told me they were ready to work with the army to ensure that its gains were maintained once they went home.

‘The thing is this,’ said Mohammed Qasar, a farmer from the district of Lada. ‘If the army treat us well, we will co-exist with them, because ultimately we are Pakistanis. The soldiers are our people, too.’

And there, alas, is the rub. The new counter-insurgency buzzword for Gordon Brown and Nato’s commanding general in Afghanistan, Stanley McChrystal, is ‘protecting the population’ in order to consolidate gains.

But honorable as that intention may be, no Afghan Pathan will ever describe the British or US troops as ‘our people’. Whatever their avowed policy, Nato troops will always look like occupiers.

In Pakistan, the fact that the army is being deployed inside its own country is a possible source of weakness.

This imposes a delicacy that is often not appreciated: it is, in the words of one general, ‘a pretty big deal’, and in order to rely on public support, it has had to wait until the Taliban’s outrages have become manifest before launching operations.

But having got that backing, it has become a source of strength.

Meanwhile, General Abbas cited a further stupefying sign of Nato’s apparent absence of strategic co-ordination.

In the name of the new ‘protection’ strategy, the US has this autumn been withdrawing from its posts on the Afghan side of the frontier, including those in Paktika, the province next to South Waziristan.

‘It will create a vacuum,’ he said, ‘and if militants escape from Waziristan, what can we do? We cannot fire on them when they cross the border.’

For years, Nato chiefs have accused Pakistan of failing to deal with the Taliban’s safe havens in Pakistani territory. Now, in one of the more bitter ironies of this ever-lengthening war, that role has been reversed

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