Monday 29 June 2009

The elusive victory - war with Taliban will be long and protracted!

Speaking at a reception for Twenty Twenty world cup winning Pakistan cricket team Prime Minister Gillani is reported to have said that “the way the cricketers have won the Twenty20 cup, similarly the Pakistani army will win the war against terrorists in Swat and Malakand...”.

Recent statements by him and some other officials remind me of one of the most embarrassing images for US is the image of President Bush declaring victory in the illegitimate war in Iraq while standing on an aircraft carrier with a banner "Mission Accomplished" flying behind him.

I hope the similarity ends here and that the lives being sacrificed by young men of Pakistan army are not being lost on another un-winnable war. Military operation against Taliban in Swat and FATA (Federally administered tribal areas of Pakistan) continues and according to Pakistan Army number of Taliban casualties can now be counted in thousands rather than hundreds. Military commanders have been pointing out, and rightly so, that a complete victory over Taliban will take months rather then weeks but key towns in Swat region are now back under central control.

It is worth noting that the terrain and the enemy are the same where the mighty Soviet Union fell and where US and its cronies in NATO are engaged in a long un-winnable war. But they have the luxury of being invading and occupying forces who can leave it all behind and wash their hands if they chose to. Pakistan army is fighting on its own territory among its own people and cannot afford to mess it up - or let the politicians turn it into a mess.

Public opinion in Pakistan is still broadly in support of the military operation to rout the menace of Taliban out of the region once and for all. Pakistan governments efforts to build a national political consensus in support of the operation have also been successful and political parties across the spectrum have largely stayed behind the army operation.

It is, however, important to ensure that what appears to be a qualified victory in the short term doesn't turn into a long term defeat.Though a large number of Taliban fighters have been killed in the operation and remaining appear to be on the run, the top tier command structure of Swat Taliban is still intact. Military action has not succeeded in capturing or eliminating key targets like Mullah Fazlullah, Muslim Khan and the like. While these hard core terrorist are alive there will always be a risk of Taliban resurgence once the army has gone back into the barracks.

It is also now public knowledge that the Taliban in Swat and FATA are not simply a local religious outfit with some international jihadis in their ranks. Their free access to American, Russian and Indian ammunition and other advanced tools of warfare points to a wider international involvement and support. Until these supply lines are open and the top tier command still at large the war in Swat will neither be over nor won.

Pakistan Army is not an occupying force in the region and should strive to ensure that it does not lose the credibility of a saviour it has at the moment. Army does not have the luxury of continuing to carry out aerial assaults in populated civilian areas like the Americans have been in Afghanistan. The extent of collateral damage is currently unknown due to blackout on independent media coverage. But nationally there is flexibility in public opinion to this end provided the Taliban do not reappear and the loss appear to have been fruitless.

And lets not forget millions of IDPs who, at the height of unforgiving summer in Pakistan are stuck in ill-equipped and ill-resourced camps. They need to return to their homes soon. The military operation has resulted in destruction of physical infrastructure in the region. In order to repatriate the IDPs they will need to return to a live-able environment which is secure. It is vital to ensure that the IDPs are brought back home as soon as the military leadership confirms a military victory in Swat. But this should accompany at least the following:

  • A new police infrastructure that is trained, equipped and willing to take on the responsibility of establishing the law and order and provide security to citizens without having to rely on military support;
  • A civil administration that does not simply rely of doing deals with the remnants of Taliban or their supporters;
  • institutions of justice and law and order - absence of these gave credibility to the demands of people like Sufi Muhammad in the first place;
  • active counter insurgency mechanism in place with bodies on the ground and in the streets. Having just a military cantonment is not going to achieve this;
  • engage national and regional political parties to create a national voice against the menace. While doing so not to cave in to pressure groups like Maulana Fazal-ur-Rehman who are still in the business of making money from dead bodies.
All of this cannot happen overnight even if the government was full of passionate, committed and loyal leaders. It would be almost unachievable if the national leadership takes its eyes of the ball. Lets hope I am not writing a lament on a lost war next summer.

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