Geopolitical Diary: A Step Forward in Swat

STRATFOR

The Pakistani army announced Sunday that troops had secured the key Taliban stronghold at Mingora, the district headquarters of Swat in the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP). Security forces also had begun trucking in relief supplies for the 40,000 residents remaining there (the actual population of the town is about 300,000) following the battle. Mingora has sustained significant damage, with most buildings and shops in the town square destroyed, according to the BBC.

The collateral damage underscores the cost of wresting control of the town from the Pashtun jihadists. Significant conventional firepower appears to have been brought to bear. More important, however, is the fact that the Pakistani military’s ability to reclaim the town — while significant — does not mean that the Taliban were defeated. Many jihadists might have been killed in the battle, but a great many are likely to have escaped.

In other words, while the Taliban might no longer control the roads around Mingora, to a great extent the countryside remains theirs, and a great many of the locals — having suffered under Islamabad’s offensive — likely remain deeply sympathetic to or even outright supportive of the Taliban. Pakistani troops have secured several other towns in Swat much as they did Mingora, but the district itself and the wider region (including the districts of Dir, Buner and Shangla) are anything but cleared of Taliban.

Pakistan has won some battles, but it has yet to address the local support for the various elements of the Taliban circulating in and around the area. This lingering support could be the reason military spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas said there was no timeline for wrapping up the offensive, after Pakistani Defense Secretary Syed Athar Ali had said operations in Swat would be completed in two or three days.

Though NWFP Information Minister Mian Iftikhar Hussain claimed that the second- and third-tier leadership of the Pakistani Taliban had been mostly eliminated, there is no way to be sure, especially when authorities have announced large cash awards for information about the locations of some two dozen leaders — dead or alive. Making sure that Taliban capabilities have been sufficiently degraded is just one major challenge Islamabad faces; there are also the far bigger issues of consolidating cleared areas and dealing with the humanitarian crisis.

Beating back the Taliban and wrapping up operations in Swat is not just about restoring the writ of the state and the ability to deliver essential services to more than 3 million people who have been uprooted by the counterinsurgency campaign — one of Islamabad’s more immediate challenges. Because the state had a very thin presence in the restive northwest to begin with (a situation the Taliban exploited to gain control of large swaths of territory), the situation is not simply a matter of restoring normalcy. Instead, the government is, in many ways, starting from scratch. Its success or failure in the tasks at hand will have consequences far beyond the towns and villages of Swat.

Although it is certainly critical, the greater Swat region is not the only Taliban safe haven in Pakistan that needs to be reclaimed in what is now a bona fide Pakistani war against Islamist militants. The Taliban are present in many other areas: The two Waziristan agencies in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas are very likely the most defensible jihadist sanctuary. Pakistani troops are carrying out limited operations in South Waziristan, which elicited an assault by scores of Taliban fighters on a Frontier Corps paramilitary base near the town of Jandola on Sunday.

Though Pakistani forces are able to repel these guerrilla-style attacks on remote outposts, the bigger threat comes from suicide bombings targeting key security installations in major cities, such as the attack a few days ago in Lahore that targeted a key facility of the Inter-Services Intelligence directorate. Waziristan is considered the launch pad for many of these large-scale bombings — and since the Pakistanis are still fighting in Swat and likely will not be able to expand the offensive meaningfully into Waziristan anytime soon, urban bombings are likely to continue.

Expanding operations would also mean a rapidly increasing number of refugees — a major factor preventing the Pakistanis from striking on multiple fronts at the same time. Public support for the counter-insurgency efforts has improved, but a majority of Pakistanis remain ambivalent about the use of force — a situation that easily could complicate matters with so many internally displaced people. Swat, therefore, is a crucial test of the state’s ability to undermine the Taliban, whose tentacles spread across Pakistan and beyond in southwest Asia.

The claimed successes of the current campaign are only the beginning. The conventional offensive in Swat likely was necessary, given the strength of the Taliban’s hold on the region, but the real trick in fighting the insurgency will involve Islamabad’s ability to reach out to the locals, creating a bulwark against Taliban attempts to exploit sentiments among the people whose lives have been disrupted.

Essentially, Islamabad’s “success” this weekend was a step, and a necessary one. But it was only one step in a much more complicated process. The battle, as they say, has only just begun.

© Copyright 2009 STRATFOR. All rights reserved