Wednesday, July 08, 2009




    Going by media reports, most of which emanate from the public relations wing of the Pakistan army, it would appear as though the Taliban are on the run and the Pakistan army is going about its job of re-taking control of territory from the Islamists with clinical efficiency. Apart from a few skirmishes and a couple of pockets of fierce resistance, the army has not faced any major obstacle in ousting the Taliban from the areas they held in the Malakand division, albeit at an enormous human cost in terms of the millions of internally displaced people and devastation of their villages, towns, homes and hearths. And yet, not many people in Pakistan are entirely convinced by the positive spin that the army is putting on the entire operation.

One major reason for this is the failure of the army to capture or kill a single one of the top Taliban commanders, something that has given rise to doubts about the objectives and intentions of the army in conducting the military operation against the Taliban. But even if it is accepted that there is no double-game being played by the Pakistan army and that the military establishment has undertaken a paradigm shift, which has been articulated by President Asif Zardari when he declared in an interview that military "operations would in the future target the figures who were the military's 'strategic assets'", there remains adequate reason for a deep sense of disquiet in the people's minds. After all, the Taliban have not ceased to exist; they are lurking somewhere and probably looking for a suitable opportunity to strike and reclaim lost ground.

According to the Pakistan army spokesman, around 2000 Taliban have been killed in the latest military operation that commenced in May 2009. But in a new, path-breaking book, a Pakistani journalist, Aqeel Yusufzai, has estimated that the strength of the Pakistani Taliban in the seven tribal agencies of FATA and frontier regions of settled districts of NWFP is around 120,000. In just Swat alone there are believed to be around 11000 Taliban fighters. These figures don't include those Taliban who are active in the other districts of NWFP, in the Pashtun belt of Balochistan, or in urban Sindh. Yusufzai writes that the strength of the Pakistani Taliban is about the same as that of the Afghan Taliban which means that the combined strength of the Taliban fighters on both sides of the Durand line is over 200,000. This number doesn't include Taliban sympathisers and supporters. According to Yusufzai, even if one were to knock down these figures, the number of Taliban in Pakistan would be above 50,000. (Talibanisation by Aqeel Yusufzai pp 78-82).

Clearly, if Yusufzai's figures are correct, then the claims being made by the Pakistan army of having broken the back of the Islamists need to be taken with lot more than a pinch of salt. This is so despite reports that suggest that the Pakistani security agencies are getting their act together in ferreting out and breaking Taliban networks in Punjab, Sindh, Balochistan and even parts of NWFP. Apparently, the law enforcement agencies seem to be getting actionable intelligence which has enabled them to pre-empt attacks by Taliban soldiers, supporters and sleeper cells in cities like Karachi, Lahore, Rawalpindi, Faisalabad, Sialkot etc. It also looks as though the preventive security measures against suicide bombings are working and are able to at least limit the damage caused by these human bombs.

On the military front too, there appears to be better operational coordination (as in the case of the hammer-anvil tactics being adopted after the Americans launched Operation Khanjar in Helmand) and intelligence cooperation (the sharing of information and on selection of targets for drone attacks in both north and south Waziristan) between the Pakistan army and the Americans. There are reports that suggest that the Taliban (both Afghan and Pakistani) are finding their space for manoeuvre getting somewhat constricted. The militants increasingly seem to be getting boxed in by the new military posture and movements on both sides of the Durand line. Perhaps for this reason the Afghan Taliban are trying to impress upon their Pakistani counterparts to try and cool matters down with the Pakistani authorities. On their part, the Pakistani Taliban are trying to expand the area of conflict inside Pakistan to ease the mounting military pressure on them.

The big question however remains: what has happened to the Taliban? Will they go back to their pre-Taliban lives or will they put up a fight? Will they make a final stand (in which they stand no chance) or will they resort to a prolonged guerrilla warfare that will sap the military, economic and political force that the state is able to muster up against them? What is the reason that the retaliation that was being expected has not been forthcoming so far and whatever little has come, including the bombing of Pearl Continental Hotel in Peshawar, is not of a nature that will bring the Pakistani state on its knees. If anything, it would appear that the people are now taking these blasts in their stride. In order to make an impression, the Taliban will have to hit newer and more audacious targets with the intention of causing maximum damage, both physical and psychological. That they have failed to do so could be because of the intercession of pro-Pakistan Taliban like the Haqqani militia and according to some analysts, even Mullah Omar. Or it could be because the security architecture devised by the Pakistani authorities is working on the ground.

It would however be very premature to start celebrating victory. Chances are that given the millenarian ideological mindset that gave rise to the Taliban, this monster is not going to disappear overnight. At the very least, Pakistan is likely to face a very long war of attrition. A low level insurgency is however something that the Pakistani state can live with. If anything, such a situation will be extremely helpful for the army to retain its primacy on both security and foreign policy issues as also for the government which can use this to continue looking for handouts and bailouts. But this is only the best case scenario.

There is also a worst case scenario, one that holds the possibility of the Islamists waiting for an opportune time and launching their own version of the Tet offensive that the Viet Cong used to such devastating effect in Vietnam against the Americans. Fears of something like this taking place have been expressed in the past both by officials and by analysts. If the Islamists, using their countrywide network, deploy 10-20 men teams and carry out Mumbai-style fidayeen attacks in 8-10 cities simultaneously, they will shatter whatever little confidence the military operation has managed to restore in the ability of the Pakistani state to fight the Taliban successfully, more so if such an attack is carried out in cities like Karachi (which is already a tinder box), Lahore, Rawalpindi, Quetta etc.

In the event, the Pakistani authorities will be forced to spread their forces thin in order to prevent such an audacious attack taking place again. This will suit the Taliban just fine because the gaps this will create in the security grid can be used by them to inflict a few major reverses on the Pakistan army. The danger is that a few major setbacks could easily break the spirit of the people and the army and create a domino effect that could catapult the Taliban into the corridors of power in Islamabad. And no, this is not the figment of a creative imagination, nor is it wishful thinking. The Taliban tactics and strategy is being guided by former officers of the Pakistan army, some of whom are experts in covert warfare and are trying to replicate tactics used by the Viet Cong some 30 years back against the same enemy.

The situation in Pakistan is still very precarious and there is a long way to go before the bubbly can be popped to celebrate the defeat of the Taliban. Whether or not Pakistan has the staying power and commitment to tread this bloody path, it has the military and financial support that the Pakistan state requires from the international community to stay the course, and it has the vision to effect unavoidable reforms in its system of governance, its education system, its public and social goods sector, the basic idea of what the idea of the Pakistani state, only time will tell. If Pakistan has all this, it has a chance of rescuing itself. If it doesn't, then sooner or later the curtains will drop on the Pakistan we know.


    <1460 Words>                    8th July, 2009



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