The Battle Has Only Just Begun


Ever since Nek Mohammad began the first insurgency from Waziristan in 2003, the loose confederation of warlords known as the Pakistan Taliban Movement have either advanced or obtained de facto government recognition in large parts of Pakistan’s Pakhtun tribal areas. Before the current Pakistan Army operations in the Swat valley, one analyst estimated that the Taliban had a presence in over 10 per cent of the country.

Now, for the first time, the Taliban is on the back foot. The massive operations in Swat, which have been vocally praised and were likely devised by the United States, have been devastating for the insurgency. The army says it has killed 1217 "miscreants" and that 81 soldiers have "embraced martyrdom", although these figures are difficult to verify.

There remain lingering questions, however, over the whereabouts of key leaders such as Maulanas Fazlullah — the man made infamous by his incendiary radio broadcasts threatening violence on those who disobeyed his edicts — and his counterpart Shah Dawran. There has been no word on either man’s capture. Given the army’s very public boasts about the success of its operations, it is unlikely to be hiding the fact if it has indeed caught them.

The most obvious explanation for the apparent disappearance of key leaders is that they are either lying low or have been killed and maimed beyond recognition. The Taliban also have a practice of quickly burying their dead and hiding the corpses of killed commanders. This makes the army’s job of identifying their casualties even more difficult.

Another possibility, increasingly mooted by long term observers of the army’s relationship with the Taliban and other militants, is that the generals have decided not to eliminate key Taliban leaders for fear of losing a long-term military asset.

In April, for instance, much of the senior local Taliban leadership were freely allowed to attend a very public meeting hosted by local government authorities believed to be sympathetic to their cause.

Whether or not it retains clandestine army support, it is clear that the Taliban movement is not sitting quietly. Large pockets of insurgents remain in Swat and the surrounding areas. Insurgents have already bombed several army posts in Dera Ismail Khan, Kohat and Waziristan over the past three days. On Thursday security forces rescued 80 boys and staff kidnapped by the Taliban a day earlier as they left a cadet college in North Waziristan. A further 37 hostages remain missing.

Like its counterparts waging war in Sri Lanka, Gaza, Iraq and Afghanistan, the Pakistan Army has strictly prohibited independent observers from entering the combat zones. And like those other armies, there are strong indications that its assaults, heavily reliant on distant bombardments, have resulted in a large civilian death toll. Quiet, off-the-record murmurs from the army’s top brass put the civilian casualty rate at 80 per cent of the overall death toll.

The battle for Swat is believed to have made close to 2 million people homeless, but many were unable to escape the often fierce battles between the army and insurgents. Once the operations subsided, they spoke of their harrowing experiences without food, water or electricity. Authorities are rushing to re-establish supply routes but even in liberated areas people have been forced to eat leaves and grass. Another blow for the largely agrarian communities here is that the fighting has occurred at the peak of the season when the valley’s famous fruit orchards were about to harvested.

The Pakistan Government has announced a further Rs50 million in humanitarian supplies for Swat communities. It and the United Nations have appealed to the international community to provide further funding. Already the Obama Administration has given US$100 million and has sought a further US$200 million from Congress. Australia has provided $12 million in food aid while Britain has given ₤10 million for humanitarian assistance in addition to ₤665 million earmarked for projects throughout Pakistan by its Department for International Development.

That is not the only type of assistance being given to Pakistan. On Saturday three planes loaded with US military "trainers" landed at Peshawar airport. They, along with training provided by the Australian Defence Force, will seek to turn Pakistan’s conventional forces into counter-insurgents.

Those skills may be called upon very soon as the Taliban, desperate for a morale-boosting show of strength, is expected to escalate its attacks in response to the loss of the Swat valley.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.