Pakistan torn over its tribal areas
KARACHI - With the winter snows fast approaching, Pakistan's security forces face a race against time over whether or not to pull out of the Swat Valley in North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), where for the past one-and-a-half years they have been fighting a losing battle against militants.
The militants occupy about 80% of the strategically vital area near the border with Afghanistan and have managed to choke most supply lines. General Headquarters in Rawalpindi realizes that should the more than 10,000 troops there not be pulled out, they will face a dire war of attrition, but if they leave, the militants will gain strength.
Kabal and Kanju are the only war theatres left in the valley with battles raging and with the military in partial control, but come winter, its supply lines will be compromised. The militants are able to sustain themselves, partially as a result of having captured numerous army supply trucks and containers.
The dilemma for the army is that if it does retreat under the guise of a peace treaty, it will allow the Taliban to strengthen its bases even further in preparation for the next offensive in Afghanistan in the spring. The anticipation is that the Taliban will receive an unprecedented boost in recruits.
As in the Bajaur Agency, the army has failed in the Swat Valley as the troops are mostly ethnic Pashtun, as are the people against whom they are fighting. As a result, there has been an over-reliance on air power, which only serves to drive the militants temporarily into the mountains or into Afghanistan.
Once the militants retreat, the army does not try to take command of the ground as it rightly fears guerrilla attacks and the militants come back. This hide and seek game has given the militants the upper hand in NWFP and significantly fueled the Taliban-led insurgency in Afghanistan.
After its failure to make headway in Bajaur, the army went into Mohmand Agency, in Federally Administered Tribal Areas from where fresh fighters and supplies were aiding the Taliban in Bajaur.
This opening of a new front against powerful commander Abdul Wali had a cascading effect. Much of the population moved to the capital of NWFP, Peshawar, and other places, allowing the Taliban to open up fronts in the towns of Sabqadar and Michini, situated on the northern edges of Peshawar.
In the past few days the Taliban have infiltrated into Peshawar, where they have killed a worker of USAID, the American government's development arm, and abducted an Iranian diplomat.
In Khyber Agency, unmanned US Predator drones have targeted the Tera Valley, but have failed to hit any targets of significance. However, in the process, pro-government, anti-al-Qaeda militants belonging to the Vice and Virtue organization of slain Haji Namdar have agreed to join hands with the local Taliban to fight against foreign troops in Afghanistan.
The drone attacks were carried out last week, and since then North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) supply convoys have been looted frequently. Pakistani newspapers have published pictures of militants moving around in NATO armored personnel carriers.
This new alliance will strengthen militant attacks in Afghanistan's Nangarhar province, which has been quiet for the past several months. On Thursday, the Taliban attacked a NATO convoy in Nangarhar near the city of Jalalabad. NATO said that several Afghan soldiers were killed while the Taliban claimed the killing of five NATO soldiers.
It's going to be a very long winter for the Pakistani army, whether it stays in the tribal areas or whether it retreats, while next spring could be the hottest ever in Afghanistan.
Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can be reached at [email protected]