With more than 1.5 million people on the move in Northwest Pakistan, fleeing a blistering offensive against the Taliban and an attempt to raise more than a billion dollars for a sustained war, the regime in Islamabad intends to respond to early pressure from its allies to eradicate the Taliban once and for all on the northwest part of its territory. After a series of military successes, the Pakistani version of the Taliban has managed to edge within striking distance of the country’s capital, controlling Mingora, the main town in the Swat Valley District and its hinterlands, just 60 miles north of Islamabad. This Taliban’s latest advance has definitely rung the alarm bell in Washington and in European capitals, triggering a fury of diplomatic and military initiatives to assist the Pakistani government in fighting the Taliban.
Earlier this month, speaking in London after meeting with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari pledged to continue what he called the fight against terrorism, saying that it would be “a long term affair.” Zadari’s statement was an acknowledgement of his military’s inability to secure a swift and decisive victory against the Taliban. It was the same government that signed a peace deal with the Taliban in the valley earlier this year. But under intense pressure from Washington and its allies, the Pakistani government last month withdrew from the deal and ordered its generals to launch a major military operation against the Islamist guerrillas.
The military hierarchy has put its prestige on the line, conducting an operation à la Israel, pounding Taliban strongholds from the air and using artillery and mortars, causing widespread destruction and a mounting toll of civilian casualties. Despite heavy aerial bombardments and an ever-growing suffering of innocent civilians in the valley, Mingora continues to be firmly in the hands of the insurgency. To counter the insurgents’ grip on Mingora, army troops have seized key positions around the town, all exit roads have been sealed and electricity, water and gas supplies have been cut off.
Many observers doubt the Pakistani army can accomplish the task of wiping out the Taliban effectively, for it is not well-trained and not well-equipped to successfully direct an anti-insurgency operation in a heavily populated area against an enemy that is willing to die gleefully for its cause. Adding to its problems is the genuine suspicion within Pakistan and its allies on the wholeheartedness of the fight against the Taliban. The Taliban (Afghan version) was a product of the Pakistani Intelligence Service (the ISI) spearheaded by Islamists militants within the intelligence service with tacit endorsement from Washington in its proxy war against Russian and Iranian influences in Central Asia.
Afghanistan is geographically located at a strategic outpost, having being the gateway to South Asia from Central Asia. Pacifying Afghanistan and Pakistan has been the cornerstone of US and European diplomacies in South Asia for years, for this will undoubtedly allow oil and other vital resources from Central Asia to be extracted freely all the way to the Arabian Sea, without any interference from Russia or Iran or China. But in an obsessive quest to win over their adversaries, policymakers in both Washington and Islamabad have committed one of their biggest strategic blunders—ignoring the historical and fraternal link between Afghan and Pakistani Pashtun, the same people separated only by an imaginary line called the Durand Line, which was the realization of British General Charles Durand at the turn of the 20th century in hope of better structuring the British Empire.
The stake is now high. A prolonged hold of the Taliban over Northwest Pakistan could have serious repercussion for the United States in its allies in their own fight against the Taliban in Afghanistan, a war that is increasingly becoming Obama’s war. To make matters worse, earlier this week, Iran successfully test-fired a ballistic missile, demonstrating its capability to hit the heart of Israel should a regional war ignite. This latest test-firing constitutes a stunning rebuke to Obama’s opération de charme in his effort for a diplomatic overture with Teheran. But Iran remains undeterred. The Ayatollahs have made it clear they will not yield to pressure, and Islamabad must not be the sole contender in the region to possess the Islamic Bomb. Pakistan is a nuclear state, and the only Muslim country to hold such title.
A refugee crisis
Because of this latest fighting that has caused such immense movement of refugees, international relief agencies are up in arms. The United Nations is scheduled to launch a formal appeal on Friday to raise what Pakistan hopes will be half a billion dollars to deal with the situation. It has been said to be the biggest refugee movement in Pakistan since its partition from India in 1947. “There is an urgent need for a joint and comprehensive response to this issue by all those who are committed to fighting terrorism,” Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani said during a meeting with donor countries. “We have to win the hearts and minds of the people. We need to do something concrete and visible,” he concluded.
As the war drags on with no end on the horizon, concerns on how to cope with so many people who have just internally displaced grow. “The United Nations will launch a formal appeal on Friday to raise some 500 to 600 million dollars for Pakistan’s IDPs,” minister of state for finance Hina Rabbani Khar said. According to her, representatives of around 40 countries and donor agencies attended a donor conference in Islamabad on Thursday. She said it was a “success.” She went on to say the Pakistani government has “informed [the donor countries] of our three-pronged strategy, which includes immediate relief, safe return and rehabilitation of the displaced people and then reconstruction of the destroyed areas.”
The Pakistan government has already allocated two billion rupees, about 25 million dollars, for relief programs. This only represents a token of what is needed to bring the situation under control. The UN World Food Programme warned yesterday that there was only enough money to feed hungry refugees until mid-July, despite the fact Western countries have already pledged 224 million dollars of aid, including 100 million dollars from the US government.
As the war escalates, army commandos are being dropped by helicopters behind the enemy lines, redoubling effort to try to subdue the insurgency, as it was the case last week near the town of Piochar in northern Swat to carry out “search-and-destroy missions.” According to several unidentified sources, Piochar is reportedly the base of Maulana Fazlullah, one of the main Taliban warlords, and the site of training camps and arms depots. News from the front is rather sketchy. Independent reporters and observers have been excluded. People, who have managed to reach higher grounds, told stories of troops being dropped by helicopter in the Niag Darra, Karo Darra and Turmang Darra areas of the Dir district.
Pakistani army spokesman Major General Athar Abbas continues to paint a rosy picture, saying the operation are being unfolded with immeasurable success. Nearly 15, 000 army troops are pitting against an estimated 4, 000 well entrenched Taliban fighters. The general’s claim is difficult to verify.
One thing remains constant: Defeating the Taliban may not be an easy task, certainly a task that all experts agree the Pakistani army cannot accomplish by itself. External forces will have to go in, and if that fails, a regional war could be triggered. Iran, despite its staunch opposition to the Taliban version of Islam, could feel forced to take preemptive measures to protect what it calls the integrity of its Northwest frontiers.