Pakistan army fights, but can it win?
Pakistan's army has a rare window of support for its latest campaign against Taliban militants near the Afghan border, and US hopes are pinned on the military for bringing stability to both countries.world Updated: May 08, 2009 14:09 IST
Pakistan's army has a rare window of support for its latest campaign against Taliban militants near the Afghan border, and US hopes are pinned on the military for bringing stability to both countries.
But so far, refugees say, the military is relying on helicopter gunships, aerial bombings and artillery while avoiding close combat, tactics it has used before with little success.
While it is still early in the battle for the Swat Valley, some fear the campaign will follow the pattern of previous offensives in the frontier zone, which have been more limited and ended inconclusively after heavy collateral damage in towns and villages and massive displacement of the population.
"If the government, the army wants to control and crush the Taliban, why don't they send ground troops to flush them out?" said Yar Mohammad, a 50-year-old stone mason who fled the valley and was in a refugee camp Thursday.
"Why are they only shelling, which hurts the public most of all and creates anti-government feeling?" Washington, anxious to stop the spread of the insurgency in Pakistan and Afghanistan, has given the army billions of dollars in aid and embedded about 30 U.S. military trainers with forces in the northwest.
While analysts say the money is sharpening the army's counterinsurgency capabilities, they caution the force must abandon its obsession with archrival India to be effective.
For more than 50 years, Pakistani soldiers have been preparing for conventional land battles on the plains of the Punjab against Hindu India rather than going door-to-door against fellow Pakistani Muslims on the mountainous border.
It currently has more than 100,000 of its 500,000 troops stationed on the Afghan frontier. Most of the rest are on the Indian frontier, experts say. "They are trying to shift the priorities, but still the mindset is always toward India," said retired general and military analyst Talat Masood.
"They can't ignore the past legacy and current tensions," he said, referring to the aftermath of last year's Mumbai terror attacks where both nations moved troops to the border. Fighting in the Swat Valley and surrounding districts began last week after a three-month-old peace deal collapsed.
According to military figures, scores of militants have been killed. There has been no official word on civilian casualties, but at least 45,000 people and probably many more 0have fled, creating a humanitarian emergency.
The Swat Taliban are estimated to have up to 7,000 fighters, many with training and battle experience, equipped with rocket-propelled grenades, explosives and automatic weapons. They are up against some 15,000 troops who, until recent days, had been confined to their barracks under the peace deal.
The battle represents the most sustained operation in the border region since a six-month campaign in Bajur and Mohmand districts ended with a declaration of victory in March. While it did drive out or kill many militants, the army razed towns and some 500,000 people were forced from their homes. They have yet to return.
Since then there have been several militant attacks in the districts. Last month, the commander of the Taliban contingent in the area made a defiant radio broadcast over an illegal FM radio station vowing to implement hardline Islamic law.
"If you look at what went on in Bajur it seems to me the army was tired of taking casualties and used artillery to flatten places," said Shaun Gregory, from the Pakistan Security Research Unit at the University of Bradford in Britain. "That is not much of a strategy either for winning hearts or minds or defeating militancy."
Military spokesman Major General Athar Abbas dismissed criticism of that operation and the one in Swat, saying the strikes were targeting areas where militants were confirmed to be. He noted operation was still ongoing and that tactics were evolving.
Gen. Ashfaz Parvez Kayani, the chief of Pakistan's army, last week promised tough action, saying he was "aware of the doubts being voiced about the intent as well as the capability of the army to defeat the militancy in the country."
On Thursday, he vowed to commit enough resources to the Swat campaign to beat the insurgency. In Washington, a senior U.S. defense official said it was too early to gauge the success or scope of the Swat operation, but noted that most of the offensives in the tribal regions since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks were not sustained.
"They are kind of like raid-style or punishment-type operations, not true, full-scale offensives," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media. "The fighting they did in Bajur was helpful, but it was only in one area as opposed to a full-scale sweep."
Several of the offensives, including the one in Swat, ended with hasty peace deals amid public and political criticism of the heavy handed military approach. A commonly held feeling in the Muslim nation that the United States, not the Taliban, is the country's main enemy added to doubts about the need to fight the militants.
This time around, however, analysts say, the country is more united behind the military approach. The Taliban have been blamed for scuttling the deal by moving out of Swat into neighboring Buner district even after the government imposed Islamic law. It is now hard for politicians previously skeptical of the need to battle the Taliban to maintain that position.
Still, most of those escaping the battle zone in recent days have complained more about military operations than the Taliban actions. High civilian casualties and the sight of up to one million refugees in the northwest with no hope of returning home could very quickly erode support for the military.