The Taliban Tightens Hold In Pakistan's Swat Region

Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, May 5, 2009

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, May 4 -- Taliban forces tightened their grip on Pakistan's Swat region Monday and continued resisting the military's efforts to dislodge them from neighboring Buner, bringing a fragile peace accord closer to collapse and the volatile northwest region nearer to full-fledged conflict.

Yet even as the Taliban continued its rampage and rejected the government's latest concession to its demands -- the appointment of Islamic-law judges in Swat -- Pakistan's military leaders clung to hopes for a nonviolent solution, saying that security forces were "still exercising restraint to honor the peace agreement."

Behind this strained hope for a peaceful solution lie an array of factors -- competing military priorities, reluctance to fight fellow Muslims, lack of strong executive leadership and some internal sympathy for the insurgents -- that analysts say have long prevented the Pakistani army from making a full-fledged assault on violent Islamist groups.

Over the past two days, extremists in the northwest have attacked a military convoy, beheaded two soldiers, imposed a curfew and blown up a boys' high school and a police station. Troop reinforcements were sent into Buner on Monday after heavy fighting, and there were reports that the army would imminently launch an attack on Swat, an action that could coincide with a crucial aid-seeking visit to Washington this week by President Asif Ali Zardari, whose government has been criticized by U.S. officials for capitulating to the insurgents.

In the past five years, the army has made periodic moves against various militant strongholds but has frequently pulled back, often amid public anger over bombing raids. Insurgent leaders hold news conferences and spew religious hatred on FM radio stations with no interference.

Even now, despite a blitz of military operations during the past week and a raft of official statements about defending the writ of the state, analysts said it is doubtful the army has the stomach for a sustained fight against Taliban forces if the peace accord does collapse.

"The militants have resolve, determination, focus and ideology. On the other side, I don't see any of those," said Aftab Khan Sherpao, a former interior minister and a member of Parliament who comes from northwest Pakistan. "The army understands the threat from the militants, but they are more permanently worried about India. They are waiting for civilian leadership and direction, and there isn't any."

Over the next several days, Zardari and a delegation of aides will be in Washington, along with leaders from Afghanistan, to seek aid and antidotes to the rapidly growing regional threat from Islamist insurgents. The Obama administration is eager to help Pakistan -- with military training, equipment and massive quantities of assistance -- but is worried that Zardari's government is not taking the problem seriously enough.

Analysts said that in the past several weeks, the growing defiance and ambitions of the Taliban -- whose forces reached within 60 miles of this capital city when they seized Buner -- have frightened the country and begun to shake its leaders out of their complacency.

"The occupation of Buner did raise alarm bells, and a shift in thinking has started to take place. But I'm not sure it can be sustained," said Talat Masood, a retired general and defense analyst. "People are still confused about whether this is our war or America's war, and nobody in the government is getting out and explaining to them why we should fight it. Nobody has the guts to say that cutting off people's heads is un-Islamic. People don't seem to realize how dangerous Talibanization is for Pakistan. It would destroy us."

Despite the Taliban's record of rapaciousness, it is hard for the Pakistani military establishment, trained to view Hindu-dominated India as its mortal enemy and inculcated with an Islamist mind-set during the military dictatorship of the 1980s, to accept Muslim insurgents as adversaries. Soldiers home on leave have been taunted for fighting their own people; desertions are rising.

The military leadership, headed by Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani, the army chief, has another list of concerns: how to rebuild its reputation after a period of unpopularity under Gen. Pervez Musharraf; how to contain extremist fighters without leaving the Indian border underprotected; and how to handle the fallout from civilian casualties and massive human flight from conflict zones.

There is no doubt that the army, though lacking expertise in counterinsurgency tactics, is equipped to crush the insurgents. But now that Pakistan is under democratic rule, analysts said, the army has no desire to be seen as making policy and is determined to seek civilian cover for its actions.

"The government is trying its best to give time and space to the other side to allow the reconciliation process to reach its logical conclusion," Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, the military's spokesman, told a Pakistani news channel. He said that the army's orders were limited to clearing the Taliban from Buner and that if reconciliation fails, "it will be the decision of the government whether to extend operations to Swat."

Abbas referred to the Taliban in noticeably respectful terms, even as he complained that it had killed prisoners whose hands had been tied. His language contrasted sharply with the mocking defiance of recent Taliban pronouncements. In the past two days, Taliban spokesmen have asserted that democracy is "infidel" and that the fighters will never lay down their weapons.

In Swat, meanwhile, Taliban forces were described Monday as preparing for sustained resistance against any attack, taking positions on rooftops in the district capital, hiding in a labyrinth of tunnels in local emerald mines and occupying homes and offices from which thousands of people have fled.

"It is very clear what they want: to turn Pakistan into an Islamic emirate," said Sherpao, the former minister. "They have taken the government for a ride while they are preaching on TV, training boys in camps, imposing curfews and spreading fear across the populace. This is our problem, and if we don't want American troops on our soil, we need to do something about it."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company