Two months after the Pakistani army drove out the Taliban to re-establish government control in the Swat Valley, questions linger about how lasting this might turn out to be. The most intense and sustained counter-insurgency campaign ever undertaken by Pakistan’s military also raises a number of other issues.
Has this delivered a decisive blow to militancy in the Malakand region of north-western Pakistan? Has it dispersed or irreversibly weakened the Taliban there? Is it a tactical gain or has it established the basis for a strategic setback for the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP)? Is it sui generis or can lessons learnt be applied elsewhere?
Answers to these questions must await the test of time and the outcome of stabilisation efforts now underway. Counter-insurgency is neither quick nor easy even when initial gains are encouraging. Lasting effects are contingent on managing the post-conflict phase which is fundamentally about governance capacity. It is nevertheless instructive to review what has happened so far.
In much of Swat and Malakand division the State’s writ has been restored within four months of the launch of the military operation. Over 30,000 troops of three divisions were deployed, all of whom will remain there during the stabilisation phase.
However, as a recent suicide attack in Mingora demonstrated, the militants’ capacity to strike is yet to be neutralised even if it has been significantly degraded. A guerrilla style hit-and-run, low intensity conflict will most likely continue. Most of the top leaders of the Swat TTP are still at large. Sporadic fighting by scattered bands keeps erupting. Hardcore fighters who melted into the heavily-forested terrain have occasionally engaged the army, albeit in a defensive mode.
This resistance is said to be dwindling, especially as the local community is becoming more assertive in cooperating with the authorities. Official and public confidence has also been enhanced by a series of militant surrenders, some to the law enforcement authorities (LEAs) and others to officially-sponsored local lashkars. But setting too high a store on the people’s ability to resist and inform must be tempered by their lingering fear of a Taliban comeback, until, at least, the top leadership is neutralised.
The most significant aspect of the Malakand operation is the return of the displaced people. An estimated 1.8 million refugees have returned — 80 per cent back to the division and 90 per cent to Swat — confounding doomsday predictions. This would not have happened if they did not feel reassured about their safety. The return of the refugees is an important indicator of growing normalcy. The exodus of over 2 million people and the danger of a humanitarian disaster had become issues of sharp domestic concern and international criticism. Even though it caused much human suffering, the mass evacuation became a key enabling factor for military action, allowing artillery and aerial bombardment of the evacuated areas.
A key role was played by airborne Special Services Group units that undertook the biggest such operation in the subcontinent’s history. The Pakistan Air Force’s ability to launch precision bombings on militant targets was also significant to the overall outcome. The strategic shift that helped drive the operation was in public sentiment, which swung decisively against the militants and in support of the action. This reinforced an indispensable lesson of counter-insurgency: without popular legitimacy and local ownership no military action can be consistently pursued, much less succeed.
High fatalities were suffered. Losing so many soldiers and a high proportion of officers had little precedent in any four month counter-insurgency mission. The rules of engagement prescribed by the leadership to avoid collateral damage, in large part, explain this. Operation Rah-e-Rast’s accompanying goal has been to restore public confidence in the law enforcement agencies and the civil administration so as to create an environment inhospitable to the re-emergence of militancy.
Establishing the infrastructure for longer term stability is fraught with problems and obstacles but is proceeding by building police strength for the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and Swat. Raising a local civilian militia known as the ‘community police force’ seeks to expand law enforcement responsibilities to local stakeholders. Local lashkars, while a useful short-term expedient, raise legal issues apart from being fraught with other risks. The establishment of this hybrid security arrangement and conclusion of the stabilisation phase will dictate the army’s ability to gradually withdraw from the area, leaving behind a permanent garrison.
Just as imposing in the recovery phase are the ‘build and rehabilitate’ challenges, which involve putting in place sustainable local governance and justice systems. The outlook here is uncertain as the civilian complement to the military operation has yet to come into energetic play. So much hard work lies ahead before Swat can be declared a success.
As for the Swat action’s impact on militancy beyond the region, it has put militants on the defensive, halted their advance and reduced their ability to extend the war outside the NWFP. A more favourable political climate has been created to conduct counter-militancy operations.
This doesn’t, by any means, imply that the threat of militancy is over. The factors that fuel that threat and determine the fate of the TTP go way beyond Swat and are inextricably linked to the instability in Afghanistan, which is worsening rather than showing any sign of ending.
Maleeha Lodhi was Pakistan’s Ambassador to the US and Britain and former editor of The News, Islamabad.