Pakistan's Victories Over the Taliban: Will They Last?

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Pakistani soldiers patrol Mingora, the capital of Pakistan's troubled Swat Valley, where the military is fighting Taliban militants

Recapturing the Swat Valley town of Mingora last Saturday was a key milestone in Pakistan's latest campaign against the Taliban. The Defense Ministry reported that government forces will have restored full control of the Valley in "two or three days," although military sources were more cautious. Indeed, the Defense Ministry's claim may be wishful thinking, because of a traditional Taliban tactic. As army spokesman Major General Athar Abbas conceded, once the army closed in on Mingora, the Taliban forces there "decided not to give a pitched battle." They mostly slipped away into the hills.

A golden rule of guerrilla warfare requires that insurgents confronted by a concentration of superior firepower must scatter to regroup and fight another day. Trying to hold ground against a sustained onslaught of armor, artillery and air power is suicidal for a lightly armed irregular force, as Sri Lanka's Tamil Tigers recently learned. Moreover, the Pakistan Taliban have certainly heeded the example of their Afghan brethren, who declined to defend Kabul when the U.S.-backed forces arrived at the end of 2001, then melted away and returned with a vengeance a few years later. So, despite the Pakistani army's reclaiming of territory audaciously seized by the militants in Swat, the war is far from over. (See pictures of "Pakistan Below the Surface.")

Even before the army took Mingora, Taliban fighters in Swat and Buner had told journalists that they planned to retreat and preserve their forces. Meanwhile, they stepped up fighting elsewhere, with bomb attacks in Lahore, Peshawar and smaller towns far from Swat, and guerrilla assaults on army targets in South Waziristan. The disappearance of some 400 students in a bus convoy in North Waziristan on Monday prompted suspicions that they had been taken hostage by the Taliban. The military claims to have killed some 1,200 militants (out of an estimated force of up to 5,000), including some midlevel commanders — although it failed to net the top Taliban leaders in the area. No independent verification of those figures has been possible, although civilians leaving the area have reported high levels of civilian casualties. (Read "The CIA's Silent War in Pakistan.")

The lasting impact of the military's Swat campaign, however, may well be the 3 million civilians it has displaced, left to largely fend for themselves in neighboring towns and emergency camps. Aid agencies warn of an impending humanitarian disaster in Swat, where civilians who failed to flee have been cut off for days from food and water supplies; others languish in camps and sympathetic communities desperately short of resources. Many of those who have returned to areas cleared by the military have found their homes, stores and mosques reduced to rubble. (See photos of the recent militant attack on a Lahore police academy.)

Reports from the area suggest that while a majority of Swat residents had bitterly resented the brief but brutal regime of the Taliban, many blamed the authorities for allowing the militants to take control in the first place — and the damage wrought by the current offensive has made many even angrier at the army and government than they are at the Taliban. That's hardly a good portent for the Pakistani government's prospects of stabilizing its restive northwest.

"Clear, hold, build" is the mantra of U.S. counterinsurgency efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, with the third element reflecting the challenge of creating a sustainable infrastructure of governance that prevents a return of militants. But it was the weakness of the civilian political order, to which the local population felt little attachment, that allowed the Taliban to set up shop in the first place in Swat and its environs. Local administrative and security structures have been badly damaged by the Taliban's takeover and the subsequent battle for Swat, and it's far from clear that the current Pakistan government has the wherewithal to do a better job this time around. Signs from the relief effort are even more alarming, as the state has struggled to get help to displaced people — and official efforts have been eclipsed, in some areas, by an Islamist charity linked to a banned militant group.

If the carnage and chaos of recent weeks has, indeed, alienated the bulk of the local population from the government as well as from the Taliban, that's an unstable situation that could, at some point in the future, again break in favor of the militants. The experience of Afghanistan shows that the Taliban extends its control less by recruiting true believers than by neutralizing the local population, making it indifferent to the question of which side is in control on the ground. The military has deployed only 15,000 men in Swat, and most of those may soon be moved into South Waziristan, which has been designated as the theater for the next army-Taliban clash. There's no safe bet on what will happen next in Swat, as the community moves to rebuild and as new administrative and security structures are put in place, while the authorities struggle to bring relief to the displaced population — and the Taliban regroups and reorganizes, possibly learning from its mistakes. The war-weary locals have surely not forgotten, however, that the current campaign is the fourth army offensive against the Taliban in Swat and that, each time, the Taliban has returned stronger than before. The militants have suffered some heavy blows, but there's no reason to believe that Swat, and the wider northwestern Pakistan, has seen the last of them.