Watching current affairs shows or reading the latest news online you’d be forgiven for thinking, things are going well for the military operation in Swat. The militants have largely been routed from their key strongholds, the main roads are open, the IDP’s are returning in large numbers and the government estimates that over 1500 militants have been killed.
However as anyone who knows a thing about counter insurgency warfare, the key is winning the peace and preventing the insurgents from re-establishing themselves.
One has to consider the initial army estimates of the militants strength being around five to six thousand. So even if army figures on Taliban casualties are to be believed that leaves three to four thousand militants on the loose. One theory doing the rounds is that the “military establishment” has decided to go easy on finishing Fazlullah because he maybe a useful asset at some stage. Whatever the case the militants are trying to regroup and establish a new base.
Now all it takes is a map and a careful reading of the papers to see where they may target next, one obvious target is Shangla district. Poor (the second poorest district in Pakistan after Dera Bugti) and mountainous Shangla briefly fell to the Taliban back in 2007. They lost control fairly early during the army operation and the Taliban never really were able to establish a significant presence. Things have changed now, while the army seems focussed on Swat, the Taliban have started to target local leaders in a move similar to their takeover of Swat.
It’s not difficult to imagine why this hasn’t been in the news, Shangla has historically been ignored by policy makers in Peshawar and Islamabad. It doesn’t attract tourists like Swat does and during winter it is cut off from the rest of Pakistan. What it does have is easy access to the Hazara division of NWFP, an area which has largely been unaffected by the wave of attacks that hit the province, as well as access to Pakistan’s main road connection to Northern Areas.
If that wasn’t enough, things aren’t looking so rosy in Swat either, this article by Rahimullah Yousafzai on extra judicial killings in Swat is disturbing. He starts off by implying that the killings are the acts of returning IDP's
"According to a count, 102 bodies have been recovered since July 13, when the first group of internally displaced persons (IDPs), started returning to their homes in Swat, Buner and Dir districts from relief camps and temporary residences in Mardan, Swabi, Charsadda, Nowshera and Peshawar districts."
"The widely held belief is that a sizeable number of militants are in the custody of the security forces and law-enforcement agencies, and none has been formally charged or produced in any court."
"Amir Izzat, spokesperson for the Swat militants, was arrested from Amandara. Two days later the authorities claimed that Izzat was killed allegedly by militants trying to rescue him when they attacked the vehicle taking him to jail. Independent journalists claim that the targeted vehicle shown to them did not even have an engine. The most harrowing reports were of dead bodies strewn upside down by the military with notes attached to the bodies warning that anyone supporting the Taliban will meet the same fate."Does that last bit sound familiar? It should be -- it’s the same tactic that the Taliban used to use to intimidate their opponents.
Obviously security forces have historically been involved in things like this for sometime now, as any MQM supporter living in the 1990's can confirm. The difference between Karachi and Swat is just that in Swati tribal society with it's pre-existing blood feuds. An eye for an eye is a recipe for anarchy and a far worse breakdown in law and order.
So what are the options? One option is a permanent military presence through the establishment of military cantonments, an idea which surprisingly has earned the support of the Awami National Party and would prevent the establishment of new sanctuaries as well as cutting supply lines. The next is development and empowering locals to police these areas through lashkars or community police. Finally you need a concerted programme of development in those areas, something which has not happened.
While I believe the Army can defeat the Taliban and prevent the formation of new sanctuaries, I feel its interest in the operation is waning as fast as the public is losing interest. Ultimately though, to win this battle some real moves towards reconciling Swati society have to be taken and that can’t happen without real political will.