Musharraf's Army Losing Ground in Insurgent Areas

By Griff Witte and Imtiaz Ali
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, November 13, 2007

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, Nov. 12 -- Across much of Pakistan on Monday, the government was firmly in command -- squelching protests, blacking out television stations and picking up dozens more political prisoners to add to the thousands already in jail.

But in vast stretches of the country's rugged and wild northwest -- heartland of the Islamic extremist insurgency -- President Pervez Musharraf's army did not have any more control than it did when the military-led government imposed emergency rule nine days ago. In some areas, it had less.

While Musharraf has justified emergency rule by arguing that he needs a free hand to battle groups including the Taliban and al-Qaeda, local officials, residents and analysts say that so far, at least, the government's troops remain on the defensive against extremist forces, which have been gaining territory for more than a year.

"For us, it does not make a difference whether it's democracy, emergency or martial law," said Maulana Siraj Uddin, spokesman for a radical cleric who has seized control of much of the scenic Swat Valley in the country's far northwest. "But I can tell you that our mujaheddin are fighting from the core of their hearts, and we have made spectacular progress in the last week."

Fighters loyal to the cleric, 32-year-old Maulana Fazlullah, have in recent days overrun three additional police stations and now roam unhindered through much of the valley, once known to tourists as "the Switzerland of Asia."

A military spokesman confirmed that the group had recently forced local security officials to flee several areas. But as of Monday, Maj. Gen. Waheed Arshad said, the army had taken control of operations in the valley, and he hinted that it was on the verge of launching an operation to stop the losses.

"We don't want these militants to be terrorizing the people. So they'll be taken to task, that's for sure," he said.

To date, it has more often been the other way around, with extremist fighters inflicting damaging defeats on the Pakistani military. In the tribal areas that border Afghanistan, insurgents have virtually free rein, using the territory as a base from which to mount attacks in Pakistan, Afghanistan and beyond, according to military analysts.

When the army has tried to conduct operations in the tribal areas, it has paid a heavy price. In August, for example, Taliban fighters commandeered an entire army convoy, taking 250 soldiers hostage without firing a single shot.

The Taliban held the troops for more than two months. They were released the day after Musharraf imposed emergency rule, when the government acceded to Taliban demands and freed nearly 30 of the group's fighters, including several who had been involved in planning suicide bombings.

Advisers to Musharraf have conceded that the main reason he suspended the constitution, fired most of the Supreme Court and declared an emergency was that the court was about to rule him ineligible for another term as president.

But Musharraf himself has explained his actions in terms of the widening war against extremist groups in Pakistan, insisting that the country would spiral out of control unless the government did everything it could to counter the threat.

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