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Taliban fake a retreat

This windswept, sand-coloured town in the badlands of western Pakistan is empty now, cleared of the militants who once claimed it as their capital. But its main brick buildings, intact and thick with dust, tell not of an epic battle, but of sudden flight, report Sabrina Tavernise & Eric Schmitt.

world Updated: Nov 19, 2009 00:55 IST

This windswept, sand-coloured town in the badlands of western Pakistan is empty now, cleared of the militants who once claimed it as their capital. But its main brick buildings, intact and thick with dust, tell not of an epic battle, but of sudden flight.

A month after the Pakistani military began its push into the Taliban stronghold of South Waziristan, militants appear to have been dispersed, not eliminated, with most simply fleeing.

Success in this region, in the remote mountains near the Afghan border, could have a direct bearing on how many more American troops are ultimately sent to Afghanistan, and how long they must stay.

Lasting success has been elusive, tempered by an agile enemy that has moved easily from one part of the tribal areas to the next virtually every time it has been challenged.

American analysts expressed surprise at the relatively light fighting and light Pakistani Army casualties — seven soldiers in five days in Sararogha — supporting their suspicions that the Taliban fighters from the local Mehsud tribe and the foreign fighters who are their allies have headed deeper into the mountains.

In comparison, 51 Americans were killed in eight days of fighting in Falluja, Iraq, in 2004.

“That’s what bothers me,” an American intelligence officer said. “Where are they?” The Pakistani Army estimated that there were 10,000 to 12,000 active Taliban fighters in Waziristan, which means that only a fraction have been killed.

The Pakistani military says it has learned from past failures in a region where it lost hundreds in fighting before. It spent weeks bombing the area before its 30,000 troops entered.

But big questions remain: How long will the military be able to hold the territory? And once they leave, will the militants simply come back?

“Are they really winning the people — this is the big question,” said Talat Masood, a military analyst and former general in Islamabad, the capital. “They have weakened the Taliban tactically, but have they really won the area if the people are not with them?” Winning them over will not be easy.

And there is history to overcome. One Pakistani intelligence official pointed to the American abandonment of the region in 1989, after the Soviet Union left Afghanistan. “If they leave in haste, like they left in the past, we will be back to the bad old days,” he said.

(The new york times & agencies)