The Obama administration has applauded the Pakistan army’s offensive to oust the Taliban from Pakistan’s Swat Valley. It’s gingerly being heralded as a change in army thinking that no longer sees the 'mortal threat' as nuclear India to the east but a spreading Taliban insurgency to the north and west, which – if a BBC map is true – now controls most of the tribal areas on the Afghan border.
The scale of the operation is immense. Up to 1.5 million people could be displaced by the fighting, if the current civilian exodus from Swat is added to earlier ones from the tribal areas.
Pakistan’s federal and provincial civilian governments have given unreserved political authority to an operation devised wholly by the army. Opposition parties, the media, religious leaders and 70 per cent of the people (according to polls) all support it, aware, finally, that the savagery of the Taliban’s rule in Swat posed a graver threat to Pakistani democracy than to American imperialism or Indian hegemony.
The army does seem this time to be going after the Taliban’s core leadership in Swat, dropping commandos into guerillas’ mountain redoubts rather than simply (and uselessly) pummelling shells into cities like Mingora. The army’s failure in earlier operations to capture or kill such Swat Taliban leaders as Maulvi Fazlullah raised questions as to whether it and its intelligence agencies were in league with them.
And yet a counterinsurgency that relies so much on artillery and aerial
firepower against a mobile guerilla force may prove no more successful
than past campaigns. Twice in the last 18 months the army has wrested Mingora from the Taliban only to see the militants return after it withdrew. With an administration in shreds and a police force demoralised, few expect better this time.
The real question is whether, having pacified Swat, the army will take the fight to the tribal areas, the hub of the Afghan Taliban/Pakistani Taliban/al-Qaida nexus. To do so – and hold ground in Swat – it would have to move troops from its frontier with India. General Ashfaq Kayani reportedly told the Americans he would do this if Delhi did the same. India’s response was to hold three days of war-games on the Pakistan border. Although some of Pakistan's army reinforcements have come from the Indian side, most have been from the tribal areas.
Until the cold war with India ends, Pakistan’s counterinsurgency will be
selective: combating those Taliban that threaten the state, as in Swat, while accommodating those who seek only a haven to fight Nato and America in Afghanistan.