Sultanwas,a once-prosperous village in Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province (NWFP),is now a bomb site. Its white concrete houses,gaudily decorated thanks to migrant wages sent back from Dubai,lie in heaps. Debris that had billowed in great clouds after army jets bombed the village in early May litters the surrounding fields. The Taliban,who had occupied Sultanwas a few weeks before,had no chance; 80 allegedly died in the rubble.
If,as the army claims,the Taliban are now in retreat in north-western Pakistan,Sultanwas was their Waterloo. It was destroyed in the biggest battle of an offensive to take back Buner,a district of NWFP that was briefly world-famous for being in Taliban hands and only 100km from Pakistan’s capital,Islamabad. This was part of a bigger operation,inspired by the outcry over Buner’s capture,to restore the government’s writ across NWFP’s Malakand region,which also includes Swat,a Taliban stronghold that the army had twice tried and failed to secure.
Involving some 40,000 troops,the army’s action has been devastating. Over 2m have been displaced,in what may be the biggest unplanned movement of people since the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Hundreds are reported to have been killed. Yet the army,which has received unprecedented public support for its attack on the Taliban,is claiming a great success.
It says it has killed 1,700 militants in Malakand,or about a quarter of the Taliban’s total there,and seriously wounded their leader,a former boatman called Mullah Fazlullah. Most neutral observers consider this an exaggeration: the army’s estimation of enemy losses tends to be based more on hope than corpses. And even if it has incapacitated Mr Fazlullah which may well be unlikely given that he has been heard broadcasting recently it has killed or captured almost none of his commanders. And yet Swat,for the first time in two years,is now mostly under military control. Its biggest town,Mingora,which late last year had been a battlefield shelled by the army and littered by militants with headless corpses,appears to have been captured almost without a fight. On July 13th the government began allowing refugees to return to Swat and Buner. Over 300,000 have done so.
The army’s success was based on numbers. It dispatched roughly three times as many troops to Swat as previously,which allowed it to storm or encircle Taliban positions. In Buner,for example,an advance party of tanks was briefly halted by an ambush involving suicide bombers in the narrow Ambela pass. By sending infantry over the surrounding heights,however,the army was able to outflank the resistance swiftly. The mere threat of encirclement,the army claims,frightened militants out of Mingora. With adequate force,it was then able to pursue them to their mountain fastnesses including a fortified cave complex at Peochar,to which 8,000 commandos were airlifted in May.
Mr Fazlullah,a member of the Pakistani Taliban a loose conglomeration of Islamist warlords is a resilient militant. By chasing away landlords and promising their land to the landless,he has built a following among poor Swatis. He may yet return. But Pakistan’s rulers are at least promising to take steps to prevent this,first by maintaining security in Malakand. The army is due to remain there in force for a year,and build a permanent base near Mingora. NWFP’ s government has said it will stiffen the region’s police force with 2,500 former soldiers,and double its overall size.
It also vows to rebuild Malakand’s shattered infrastructure,including over 300 schools destroyed by the Taliban,and 500 houses in Sultanwas alone. The UN says this may cost billions; it is not clear where the money will come from. “No one knows what will happen to us,” laments Shamin Khan,one of a few hundred residents of Sultanwas camping besides the ruins. For emergency cases,the government has promised 25,000 rupees ($305) to 230,000 displaced families and claims that over half have already received this.
Given Pakistan’s dire record of governance,these plans may fail. And the army,always loth to do policework,may withdraw too soon. Yet the campaign’s high profile in Pakistan and huge public support,makes this less likely. An opinion poll released this month suggested that 70 per cent of Pakistanis back the army against the Taliban in Swat. Every big political party,including the main opposition Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz),which has been considered sympathetic to the militants,has pledged support to the campaign.
The army expects similar backing for its next operation-an impending assault on the Pakistani Taliban’s leader,Baitullah Mehsud,in his tribal fief of South Waziristan. The alleged architect of a two-year terrorism spree,in which thousands of innocent Punjabis,Sindhis and Pushtun have been killed,Mr Mehsud is another popular target. And the army,buoyed by unaccustomed plaudits,hints that it will not stop there. According to Major-General Tariq Khan,commander of the Frontier Corps,a 60,000-strong paramilitary force charged with controlling the tribal areas,”No militant is going to get away.” Having been embarrassed by many failed truces with the Taliban,he predicts that the army will now crush them. “[There’ll be no more peace deals anywhere.”
This sounds optimistic. It will be hard to take out Mr Mehsud without the compliance of two rival militants,Muhammad Nazir and Gul Bahadur,who control access-routes to his fief. Last month both men declared the end of truces with the government perhaps fearing that if Mr Mehsud were removed they would be next. On June 28th Mr Bahadur’s men killed at least 23 soldiers in an ambush. Frontier watchers in Peshawar,NWFP’s edgy capital,speculate that the army may be trying to re-enlist the support of these brigands.
More depressingly,Pakistan’s rulers show little interest in pursuing militants dedicated to fighting India,including those of Lashkar-e-Taiba (LET) who launched an amphibious attack on Mumbai in November. On July 20th the sole surviving terrorist,Muhammad Ajmal Qasab,a confessed LET member,described his part in the assault to a hushed courtroom. Pakistan,which initially denied any link to the attack,says it will try five alleged ringleaders this month. Yet there is scant evidence that it is dismantling the banned group,as India has demanded as a condition for resuming peace talks with its neighbour. Last month Hafiz Saeed,LET’s founder,was released from house-arrest for want of evidence connecting him to the Mumbai attack. The Islamist charity he heads,Jamaat-ud-Dawa,banned by the UN after Mumbai,is operating under a new name,Falah-i-Insaniat. It did sterling work among the refugees of Malakand.
© The Economist Newspaper Limited 2009