Sunday, May 10, 2009

Closing In on the Taliban

The Pakistani Army is actually making a push to rid Swat Valley's major urban centers of Taliban militants, one city at a time--and starting with the biggest.

Mingora is apparently home to 4000-5000 Taliban fighters, who seem to be bent on reinforcing defensive positions rather than trying to sneak out with civilians. Sneaking out with civilians would likely require leaving behind weapons caches that the Pakistani Army would scoop up, as well as likely exposing their commanding officers (well-known to the Pakistani Army by now) to helplessness; the Taliban would probably rather take their chances fighting it out.

And there is some precedent for just that. The last major venture into Taliban territory ended in disaster for Pakistani troops: they were ambushed and torn apart. But these are not paramilitary patrolmen on the offensive. Pakistan is sending commandoes and shock troops to spearhead door-to-door fighting, and will be following up with regulars (who are surprisingly well-trained). What is likely is that the paramilitary will be surrounding the city, providing forward defense for any counter-attacks by the Taliban from elsewhere, and preventing escape. The Army probably intends to neutralize as many of these fighters as possible, rather than simply flushing them out (because, frankly, they would just pop up somewhere else).

This will be bloody. But my money's on the Pakistani army in this battle. They seem to have the will to suffer (and inflict!) the casualties necessary to get the job done. Somehow, they have either mustered courage or worked a deal on the Indian border, such that they actually have some of their best troops in the northwest rather than the southeast. And, almost certainly, they have NATO support.

A major victory here, especially one that leads to the rounding up of thousands of militants, is likely to have positive effects in the future, for a few reasons. First, morale will be high, and the will to keep fighting will remain (a major defeat may send the Pakistanis reeling into peace-seeking again, though we can hope that they've learned their lesson from the Swat deal). Second, the Army will be at a major tactical advantage (with literally 4,000 fewer militants hanging around, with weapons caches cleaned up, etc, they will have to spend less time on the defensive and can spend more hunting). Third, this may even go very far in the necessary hearts-and-minds campaign in the northwest. As the Pakistani people grow more exhausted of the Taliban, the Army has the potential to become a welcome relief. If they can root out the threat, provide security, aid resettlement of the refugees (of which there are now hundreds of thousands), and provide aid (food, water, trash pickup)--not to mention freedom from the Taliban's harsh sharia rule over the area--then they are likely to forge allies among the civilians in the area.

It's an exciting time in Pakistan. This could be the first major turnaround in the war on the Taliban since 2001. I'll keep you guys updated on it.
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