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Future Of Pakistan's Antiextremism Efforts Hinges On Swat Operation

Pakistani soldiers stand guard on top of a mountain overlooking the Swat Valley. Will the government prevent the Taliban from coming back?
Pakistani soldiers stand guard on top of a mountain overlooking the Swat Valley. Will the government prevent the Taliban from coming back?
In what is widely seen as a remarkable illustration of public wrath against the Taliban, 1,600 villagers attacked Taliban positions in the Upper Dir district of northwestern Pakistan on June 9, just days after a suicide attack at a mosque killed 40 civilians, including children.

The Taliban was immediately blamed for the mosque attack, adding to tensions that were running high after militants infiltrated the remote valley and started building local networks and intimidating locals.

The Pakistani military on June 9 sent helicopter gunships to the remote mountain villages of the Malakand region to reinforce the local anti-Taliban militia or "lashkar," which means something akin to "posse" in Pashto.

The lashkar reportedly destroyed the homes of 25 Taliban fighters and claimed to have killed 15 militants.

But while the operation was widely touted as a major success, skeptics note that similar revolts against the Taliban have ultimately failed.

Local observers say that, beginning in 2003, Pashtun communities from mountain villages in the Waziristan tribal region to the urban neighborhoods of the regional capital Peshawar mobilized periodically to expel Taliban fighters. But such initiatives were ultimately ineffective because the government failed to support them.

In the absence of viable government protection, hundreds of tribal leaders and politicians heading such efforts were gunned down in targeted attacks. Gatherings of groups were often hit by suicide bombings that inflicted numerous casualties.

Plight Of The Pashtuns

Faced with endless violence, Pashtuns in the region have nowhere to turn, says Ijaz Khan, a professor of international relations at Peshawar University.

"Pashtuns are caught in the cross-fire and are being killed from both sides. On the one hand they are accused of being the Taliban, and the Pashtuns have no means to ask them [the West] why, if they were the Taliban, would they blow up their schools with bombs even while their children were there?" Khan notes.

"They are caught in the conflict from all sides, between the neighboring countries, internationally, and within the country. And all this results in Pashtuns being slaughtered. But they don't know where to go, how to move forward."

Just a year ago, Khan saw local politicians promising jobs, security, and development during an election campaign. But today, millions of those same voters find themselves struggling for survival under the blazing sun as they wait out the government's military operation in tented displacement camps and in sweltering towns and cities across Pakistan.

A newspaper displays photos of militant leaders wanted by the government.
Most of those displaced come from Swat and the surrounding districts of Dir and Buner in the Malakand region, where the Pakistani military claims to have killed 1,300 militants while losing 105 soldiers.

The current offensive began in late April after a peace deal there collapsed. Some 18,000 Pakistani soldiers are now battling 5,000 extremist fighters, many of whom are veterans of guerilla warfare in Afghanistan and Kashmir.

But the offensive has also forced out an estimated 2.5 million people from Malakand. With independent journalists denied access to the conflict region, it is difficult to estimate civilian casualties or the state of tens of thousands of civilians who remain in the area with no electricity, food supplies, or basic health care.

Fearing Retribution

Khan says that due to recent Pakistani history, which often saw efforts to defeat extremism through large-scale military operations result in the Taliban coming back and reclaiming lost influence, trust between local populations and the government has been lost.

Khan says this is evident today in Swat, where "what we see on the surface and what one gathers from people coming out of Swat are contradictory.

"On the one hand a lot of people will tell you that this time the government forces are hitting the right targets. On the other hand people still express doubts and say that while the Taliban foot soldiers are being killed, their leaders are not targeted and they are even provided with an opportunity to escape from certain regions," Khan says. "So a lot of doubts are being expressed."

Government bounties for the capture of 21 Taliban commanders in Swat have so far not led to the capture of any significant insurgent leaders. Locals express fear that as long as the leader of the Swat Taliban, Mullah Fazlullah, is not dealt with, he might follow in the footsteps of other Pakistani Taliban leaders and rebuild his network once the military operation is over.

If that were to happen, they expect a new cycle of retribution, with anyone seen as being against the Taliban killed.

International Doubts

This uncertainty over the future course of the Swat operation is shared internationally.

Farzana Shaikh, a South Asia specialist at the Chatham House think tank in London, says that the Swat operation has given the international community, particularly the United States, some confidence that the Pakistani government and the military "are finally serious in tackling the militant threat."

Shaikh says that there are concerns that the Pakistani military's job in Swat will go unfinished as it expands its war to new fronts and takes on the Taliban forces in the Waziristan tribal region.

"At the same time, there is also great doubt about just how serious this operation is for the simple reason that to date we have not had any of the militant leaders from Swat or anywhere else in the Malakand arrested. The top leadership still seems to be pretty much intact and the army and security forces have been unable to arrest or capture any of the main leaders," Shaikh says.

"There remains this doubt -- this uncertainty about whether or not this military operation will really be completed with the kind of determination and decisiveness that many hoped would be in evidence. The jury is still out on this one."

Shaikh's newly published book, "Making Sense Of Pakistan," examines the strategic implications of Pakistan's complex relationship with an Islamic identity. While originally envisioned as a modern secular state for South Asian Muslims, Pakistan's regional engagements and domestic political developments turned it into a bastion for violent extremism.

Shaikh maintains that while the prevailing anti-Taliban mood in Pakistan might prove fleeting, the country's political and military elite now needs to build consensus on tackling the fundamental question of what kind of state they want to build.

"As long as the state itself cannot clarify the kind of Islam that it wishes to project, so long as it cannot clarify its own relationship with Islam, there will always be this uncertainty in the minds of people about whether or not those who are claiming to be fighting in the name of Islam should be attacked in the way that they are being attacked at the moment," Shaikh says.

In a noticeable contrast to the Bush years, U.S. President Barak Obama's administration appears to have moved away from measuring progress in terms of the militants killed or captured.

During his visit last week, Obama's special regional envoy Richard Holbrooke noted the apparent change of mood in Pakistan and its government's resolve to fight extremism. However, he made clear that winning the hearts and minds of those most affected by violence is now pivotal.

"The test of this policy is whether the refugees can go home, go home quickly, and return to their normal lives, and that is going to be a large internationally -- it has to be, it has to be -- a large internationally supported reconstruction effort," Holbrooke said.
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    Abubakar Siddique

    Abubakar Siddique, a journalist for RFE/RL's Radio Azadi, specializes in the coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is the author of The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key To The Future Of Pakistan And Afghanistan. He is also one of the authors of the Azadi Briefing, a weekly newsletter that unpacks the key issues in Afghanistan.

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