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The Failure Of Pakistan's 'Clear And Hold' Strategy

Siblings fleeing a military offensive in the Bajaur tribal agency stand in front of the Walikandawe camp for the internally displaced in Lower Dir district last year.
Siblings fleeing a military offensive in the Bajaur tribal agency stand in front of the Walikandawe camp for the internally displaced in Lower Dir district last year.
Another security operation in Pakistan and more displacements. In fact, the UN estimates that some 40,000 people have been displaced in recent days from the Mohmand tribal agency and that figure could grow as high as 90,000. We can expect calls for international assistance any time now.

This marks the second time residents of Mohmand, which is located north of Peshawar and shares a border with Afghanistan's Konar Province, have been displaced from their homes and livelihoods by an anti-Taliban operation conducted by Pakistani security forces. In September 2008, thousands fled their homes and settled in makeshift camps in Peshawar and Nowshera. Although most of them were able to return home, a few thousand still populate the Nowshera camp.

Since 2008, security forces have continued fighting and conducting smaller operations against armed militants in various parts of Mohmand without being able to entirely root them out and enable locals to live peacefully.

Just in the past few months, dozens of schools, health-care centers, and wells have been destroyed by militants, who also carried out two bombings in the agency that left scores of people dead (including key anti-Taliban tribal elders).

Following the much-hyped 2008 operation, security forces assured displaced locals that the area had been cleared of "miscreants" and that they can return to their houses to resume their routine life. They are also promised reconstruction assistance in the affected areas and a better future.

Within weeks, however, it was already clear that nothing had changed. Armed groups began reappearing with threats, kidnappings, and targeted killings. No change. No peace.

A similar situation emerged in neighboring Bajaur district. There, a "massive" operation involving jets, helicopters, and artillery was conducted in the summer of 2008, forcing thousands to flee to refugee camps in Malakand, Peshawar, Nowshera, Charsadda, and Mardan. Although Bajaur seems calm now, most of the displaced persons are still reluctant to return.

In late 2009, yet another operation was conducted in South Waziristan. Again, thousands abandoned their homes and settled in makeshift camps or with relatives in nearby cities. Although the operation is over -- and has been declared a success by the government -- few of the displaced are returning.

Militants As 'Strategic Asset'?

For years now, Pakistan's security forces have been launching military operations in various regions and, a month or so later, declaring them successes. Yet peace never comes and the armed groups reappear, sometimes within days of an operation being "successfully" concluded.

Of all these adventures, only the operation in Swat can really be seen as a success, although there is still small-scale violence in some parts of the valley, and locals live in dread of the return of radical Islamist Maulana Fazlullah.

Despite the casualties and sacrifices of the security forces, the "clear and hold" strategy simply is not working. And the repeated reemergence of Taliban militants in areas that have been victoriously proclaimed "cleared" has led ordinary Pakistanis to question the government's sincerity.

Some have gone so far as to speculate that the government and the security apparatus view the militants as "strategic asset" in their own political and geopolitical maneuvering -- a "strategic asset" for which it is apparently worthwhile to sacrifice both soldiers and civilians.

Daud Khattak is a broadcaster with RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL