ISLAMABAD - Following a barrage of American pressure, Pakistan abruptly
abandoned all its existing plans to thwart insurgents and, in a televised
speech by Prime Minister Syed Yousuf Raza Gilani, promptly declared all-out was
against the Pakistani Taliban.
Within hours, Pakistan's Chief of Army Staff, General Pervez Ashfaq Kiani,
launched an aggressive military operation - supported by gunship helicopters,
heavy artillery and fighters jets - into northern North-West Frontier Province
(NWFP), ransacking Taliban sanctuaries in Swat and other areas. Interior
Minister Rehman Malik told the BBC that an estimated 200 militants were
killed over the weekend, bringing the total killed in fighting in the region to
Water, electricity and lines of communications were completely cut; the Taliban
had no option but to flee. An exodus of the local population also began, with
hundreds of thousands of residents leaving their homes. In the most affected
districts of Swat, Buner and Shangla, some 70% of the population has fled for
their lives. The number may soar to 1.5 million in the weeks ahead.
Elsewhere, the government sponsored anti-Taliban conferences across the country
in which Shi'ite and Sufi clerics declared the Taliban rebels heretics and
called for their destruction. All four of Pakistan's major political parties -
including the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party and the largest opposition party,
the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz - released statements in support of the
This was how the situation unfolded over the past week in Pakistan - a
situation envisioned by the administration of former United States president
George W Bush more than two years ago. The events are a culmination of years of
political deals cut with Islamabad to form a consensus government and provide
popular support for Washington's "global war on terror".
But the essential question remains: will Pakistan win this American war against
the Taliban? Neither Islamabad nor Washington has the answer, but both realize
this will be a very long war. Even if the Taliban can be routed, the force and
scope of the operation will undoubtedly pit different segments of society
against each other.
This is the exact situation that al-Qaeda has been waiting for.
On the ground Seven years of war in Afghanistan have shown that no matter how much bad
press the Taliban receives, they are still the representatives of Pashtun
tribal culture and nothing is going to change this.
Even as the new drama was unfolding in Islamabad, the Taliban issued warnings
to all doctors in the NWFP that if they didn't abandon Western pants and shirts
and begin wearing Pakistani shalwar kameez, or "proper clothing", they
would be attacked by the Taliban.
The NWFP department of health responded by asking doctors to comply and don the
Taliban's preferred attire. Despite the powerful military push, many officials
still do not have the heart to resist the Taliban.
The military campaign is not universally popular in Islamabad, either. At a
dinner held on Sunday at the elite Islamabad Club, Qazi Hussain Ahmed, the
former chief of the fundamentalist party Jamaat-e-Islami, lambasted Pakistan's
Minister for Parliamentary Affairs Dr Babar Awan over the operation, claiming
that it looked like a war against the people of Swat, not against the
militants. Qazi Hussain Ahmed demanded to know why the plan was not approved by
the parliament and the cabinet.
The federal minister initially avoided the answer and said that he respects
Qazi Hussain Ahmed as a very senior politician. But when Qazi Hussain Ahmed
continued his arguments, his patience ran out.
As witnessed by Asia Times Online, Dr Babar Awan said: "Sir, have you seen the
footages shown by some international TV channels about how a senior official of
the administration was informing the Taliban to leave the places as the
security forces are set to enter in Buner? Sir, we did discuss the issues in
the closed-door sessions of parliament, but what can we do when our
parliamentarians leak the information to the militants? Even a minister leaked
very crucial information to the militants. Now, tell me what [other] option
[was there] except unleashing the military operation secretly?"
Qazi Hussain Ahmed countered by saying the regional curfew should be relaxed so
ordinary civilians could leave instead of being bombed or starved. Some believe
that should the humanitarian crises worsen, it would justify direct American
interventions deep inside Pakistan.
Influential US military minds, such as retired Colonel Douglas Macgregor, have
been highlighting this possibility. Macgregor believes that the US should make
Pakistan its focus rather than Afghanistan. But in Pakistan nobody is ready to
accept this scenario. In fact, no Pakistani decision-maker could have foreseen
that one day the entire world would consider the whole area of Afghanistan and
Pakistan as the same conflict zone.
From the eyes of al-Qaeda
The militants did not anticipate such a quick operation in the area and were
caught completely unprepared. The numbers of casualties for the security forces
are minimal. In most areas, either the militants are on the run or under siege
by the security forces. In some cases, they are using the civilian population
as human shields.
According to the local people, transporters have raised the bus fares for a
single seat from 700 rupees (US$8.70) to 7,000 rupees. People have left their
belongings and homes abandoned as they fled to other cities for shelter. Such a
mass exodus has not been seen in the region since the Russian invasion of
Afghanistan in late 1970s.
Now, for financially battered Pakistan, the biggest challenge is the management
of the refugees. So far, no political party has been seen in the affected
areas. The only NGO, which is active for the relief operation is Al-Khidmat, a
wing of the Islamic party, the Jamaat-e-Islami Pakistan. The number of
displaced people is likely to grow to as many as 1.5 million in coming days.
The total funds the government has allocated so far is 200 million rupees (out
of total 1 billion rupees announced by the prime minister). This means roughly
133 rupees for each person, hardly enough for one day's food.
The complaints have already started, and in the weeks ahead the situation is
likely to get worse. As in the past, people may blame the government for the
situation, not the Taliban.
Taliban may simply flee from Swat, as they did in late 2007, and regroup in
different places to exploit the chaotic situation. Gaining several thousands of
new recruits should not be a problem, especially when they are lured by monthly
stipends and other benefits. The Taliban can easily generate resources from
robberies and ransoms. Within a few months, the Taliban will be able to raise
new brigades of guerrillas.
With large numbers of people travelling to destinations like Islamabad and
Lahore, ethnic tensions will flare up as people in Punjab are already wary of
the Taliban and have started treating all Pashtuns with suspicion.
Amid the military strikes, an anti-Taliban religious segment is amplifying its
grudge against the militants. When the Taliban regroup they are likely to
strike back, killing their opponents as they have done in the past. If that
happens, neither the Sufis nor Shi'ites will have much support - neither from
their frightened constituencies nor from the military establishment.
This is the situation al-Qaeda has desired for a very long time. Al-Qaeda
carried out sectarian attacks on Shi'ite mosques, allegedly assassinated former
prime minister Benazir Bhutto, and bombed bombed public places. But they failed
to rupture the national fibre of the country or create enough chaos in Pakistan
to draw security forces to multiple fronts.
Now the government has done this for them. Islamabad has sponsored a military
campaign that will push an isolated situation to the other parts of the
country. The previous fear of the "Talibanization" of Pakistan could possibly
Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can
be reached at[email protected]