Fighting a 'losing' war with the Taliban
By Ashfaq Yusufzai
PESHAWAR - Pakistan is in the midst of a heated debate on continuing military operations against the Taliban in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), especially after the brutal killing of 23 army soldiers last month. Cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan claims that the government acknowledges that the army's chances of success are very low. Khan, head of the Pakistan Tehreek Insaf (PTI) party, has been pressing for talks with the Taliban.
"Militancy has increased in spite of the army's presence. Around 50,000 people, including 5,000 soldiers, have been killed by the terrorists," Khan tells IPS. His party is in power in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province that adjoins FATA in the north of Pakistan.
"We have been urging peace talks because the military's
intervention is no solution to terrorism. The Taliban are killing our soldiers and civilians in a war started at the behest of the US," Khan tells IPS.
The government and the Taliban have formed their respective committees to hold peace talks. But the efforts came under strain after the brutal killing of 23 Frontier Corps soldiers by the Taliban in Mohmand Agency in FATA on February 16. The army men had been in captivity since 2010.
Khan says, "Our soldiers are fighting their own people. Militancy will never decrease through military action."
In a TV interview last month, Khan claimed that the army chief had told Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif that military operations couldn't root out militancy. There was much hue and cry over his claim.
"Khan's statement aims to demoralize the army," said Khursheed Shah, opposition leader in the National Assembly. Shah accused Khan of stabbing the army in the back.
Information Minister Pervez Rasheed said the army was capable of fully eliminating the Taliban. "The beheading of 23 soldiers is condemnable. Even India, our archrival, treated our captured soldiers in accordance with the Geneva Convention and didn't behead anyone," he tells IPS.
Senator Muhammad Adeel of the Awami National Party alleged that Imran Khan was trying to underestimate the army. However, many say Khan is not wrong.
"Khan's statement that there is only a 40% chance of military operations succeeding against the Taliban has stirred a heated debate in Pakistan, and he is not entirely wrong," political analyst Muhammad Shoaib, who teaches at the University of Peshawar, tells IPS.
According to the army, the Taliban have killed 460 people since September 9 last year, when an all-party conference decided to hold talks with the militants.
Shoaib said the killing of the 23 soldiers indicated that the militants were still going strong. "They were kept hostage for four years, killed and even a video of the killings released," he pointed out.
Analysts say the situation in FATA is far more complex today than it was before the deployment of the army.
Jalal Akbar, political science teacher at Gomal University in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, said there were instances earlier of militants releasing their captives.
"In 2007, pro-Taliban militants had kidnapped 250 soldiers in FATA's South Waziristan Agency, but released them when their own men were freed by the government," says Akbar.
Taliban and al-Qaeda militants have been targeting Pakistani and Afghan forces from FATA. They took refuge there after the Taliban government in Kabul was toppled by US-led forces in 2001.
Many believe the army is at a disadvantage in FATA as the militants carry out guerrilla warfare. Muhammad Rafiq, a retired army officer, tells IPS, "The majority of our soldiers are not used to fighting in the mountains and forests. The army is unable to fight the Taliban there because of the terrain."
Some Pakistanis believe military operations only provoke more brutal acts by the militants. In Swat, a district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa where the Taliban held sway from 2007 to 2009, people still remember the gruesome acts of violence.
"Every morning we would see the beheaded bodies of soldiers hanging from electric power poles," says Nasirullah Khan, a former police inspector in Swat.
The Taliban's writ still runs large in FATA. Dr Jawad Shah, a polio officer, says the Taliban don't allow polio vaccinations in Waziristan, and the army is unable to stop them.
"Of the targeted 300,000 children, we have not been able to vaccinate even a single child because the Taliban are in full control there."