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.

In making his case, he highlighted Swat, saying an emergency declaration allows the army greater latitude to fight in an area where curbing militancy is normally left to local police.

Since the emergency declaration, much of the government's energy has been devoted to cracking down on mainstream political opponents, not militant forces. That could change if the army launches an offensive in Swat.

But it is not clear whether even the army will have much impact.

Over the past year, Fazlullah's black-turbaned Islamic fighters have established their own state amid the towering peaks of the Hindu Kush, turning the picturesque valley into a battleground.

Unlike the tribal areas, which are officially semiautonomous and in practice have never been under the central government's control, Swat is part of Pakistan's so-called settled areas. The government is supposed to rule there. But in 70 villages throughout the valley, Fazlullah's extreme interpretation of Islamic law, or sharia, is the only law that matters.

Suspected criminals are publicly flogged. Soldiers are beheaded, their bodies dumped in the streets. Extremist fighters direct traffic and run the hospitals. The white flags of the Taliban flutter above government buildings. Education for girls is discouraged, music is banned and barbers have stopped shaving beards.

"Government institutions are completely nonexistent in our whole area," said Rahmat Din, 25, a valley resident. "Fazlullah has appointed representatives in almost all villages under his control for dispensing speedy justice and helping solve the people's problems."

For many residents, that's just fine.

"He is fighting for the introduction of sharia, and nothing else, and we are ready to sacrifice ourselves and our sons on his order," said Mohammad Rehan, a 34-year-old volunteer in Fazlullah's army, which numbers in the thousands and is headquartered just a couple of miles from the valley's main town, Mingaora.

Fazlullah rallies his supporters through fiery broadcasts on a pirated FM signal, which has earned him the nickname "Maulana Radio." Earlier this year, he spoke out against the evils of television, and local residents responded by setting thousands of TVs ablaze.

In sermons that echo for miles, he also calls on Swat's residents to rise up against Musharraf and his international backers, especially the United States.

"The mission of Fazlullah in Swat is the same as that of the Taliban in Afghanistan and other mujaheddin in Waziristan," said Shah Abdul Aziz, a former member of Parliament. "All of them have taken up arms for the same task of fighting against the puppets of the United States and introducing the system of Islamic laws."

Throughout the northwest, the war against the insurgents is unpopular. Many Pakistanis consider it America's war, though on either side, it's Pakistani blood that is spilled.

Analysts say they fear that while emergency rule may give Musharraf more power to use the army to put down the insurgency, it will backfire when it comes to changing minds.

"The mullahs' main slogan is enforcing sharia, and that is popular with the populace," said Ghulam Cheema, a retired army colonel. "The army, in their heart of hearts, can't fight such a slogan."

Ali reported from Mingaora and Peshawar. Correspondent Pamela Constable in Islamabad contributed to this report.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company