Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Swat Valley: The Pot Boils Over

Any pretensions for an uneasy truce in the Swat Valley between the Pakistani government and the Taliban came to an abrupt end today, as the Taliban began to seize government buildings, and fighting erupted in Mingora, the main city of the valley.

Taliban militants began to siege the police building and many government offices were taken over. 46 government paramilitaries were reported to still hold the city’s electrical grid station. At least 18 civilians were reported wounded in the crossfire. Over the past week, sporadic fighting and casualties were reported around many other districts of Malakand, a region in Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP). That fighting now seems to be intensifying considerably across the NWFP and Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).

Indeed, the government is encouraging citizens to flee for their safety, according to reports from Al Jazeera. CNN reports that a major offensive may begin as soon as Wednesday, 6 May 2009. As soon as the government warning was issued, residents of Mingora began to pile on buses to escape the expected fighting. The Pakistani government predicts that as many as 500,000 people may flee the region in coming days.

This number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) would exceed the numbers that fled in the wake of prior conflicts in the Swat Valley last year. In February 2009, it was reported that over 337,000 had fled ahead of the fighting. Though most of those returned to their homes after the cease fire between the Taliban and the government.

Forces Involved

UPDATE: Taliban forces cited in the AP as 7,000; Pakistani military forces at 15,000. (6 May 2009)
  • Taliban: The militants are believed to have forces of about 7,000 insurgents in the Swat Valley and environs. According to the Pakistani military, 400 Taliban had advanced into the Buner area and had put up stiff resistance. Many of those were killed in the past week’s counterinsurgency by government forces.
The Taliban claims that it now controls 90% of Swat. However, if it spread its 7,000 troops across the Swat district, which is 5,337 square km (an area about the size of the state of Delaware), that would equate to a bit more than 1 man per square kilometer. It is unlikely there are any Taliban in much of the province. Instead, based on various reports, the more likely situation is that the Taliban are grouped in central locations: blocking major roads, seizing strategic facilities and key strongpoints, and patrolling the capital and other urban areas.

The question for both sides will be the amount of resolve, numbers, and reserves they bring with them to the conflict. This is not the first time the Pakistani military has attempted to wrest back control of Swat Valley. In the past, the Taliban has been able to keep control of this central and key region.

This time seems different. The government and the Pakistani people seem to be recognizing the degree to which the government has lost control of its territory. And the people of Swat seem somewhat reticent to greet the Taliban as welcome liberators. Part of this may be due to the presence of foreign fighters: Uzbeks and Tajiks.

Prospects for Peace

Not good, to begin with. The Taliban seem unapologetic and ready for a fight. For its own part, the Pakistani military seems ready to flex its considerable muscles and is likewise ready for a fight, albeit somewhat reluctantly.

The Taliban has been, so far, the mouse that roared. Its few thousand irregular insurgents, armed with the ubiquitous small arms of AK-47 and RPGs, have in the past beaten off poorly-paid Pakistani provincial forces, police and paramilitaries. Now, the regular Pakistani military seems to be bringing out, quite literally, its big guns for the upcoming fight.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Pakistan's Swat Valley Simmers

In Pakistan’s northern Swat Valley this week, the Pakistani Army and the Taliban have both been pushing and prodding each other in a turf war. Likewise, the Pakistani Army went on the full offensive across Swat, Buner and Dir.

The Army announced that it had recently killed 80 militants, including local Taliban commanders; a total of 170 - 200 have been killed since the Army’s offensive was launched on 26 April. The Taliban retaliated by beheading two captured soldiers.

Furthermore, as proof of the violation of the peace deal brokered earlier in the year, the Pakistani Army announced it had captured three Taliban vehicles filled with explosives that were to be used in suicide attacks. Plus, a bank had been looted, the power grid had been attacked, and a bridge was partially blown up, all laid at the doorstep of the Taliban and its forces. Overnight curfews have been imposed, but the Taliban has taken to patrolling the streets with their own armed soldiers.

Eight Islamic Sharia-law judges, known as qazis, have been appointed, and a new Sharia appellate court, called the Darul Qaza, has been established. Yet the Taliban is rejecting these government measures.

The Pakistani government, for its part, seems to be preparing to use this week’s news as collective proof of the government’s good faith, and to regard the Taliban’s actions as a broach of the agreement, thereby possibly opening up a full resumption of military activities.

Indeed, according to Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP) Information Minister Sufi Muhammed, with the establishment of the new Sharia-based qazi courts, “Now anyone carrying arms would be treated as a rebel and would be prosecuted in the qazi court.” It is unlikely that the Taliban will comply with this government edict.

A major concern for the conflict is the prospect of civilian casualties and refugees. According to the Sunday Times, 2,000 hostages are being held as human shields in Pir Baba. The unrest has caused 90,000 refugees to flee the conflict zones in the NFWP; 30,000 Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) were caused from the fighting in Lower Dir alone. However, the Pakistani government has been somewhat obscure on civilian casualties.

The Voice of America did not go into specifics of threats to the civilian populace, other than the passing reference to the execution of three civilians, instead focusing on the advance of Pakistani troops to the borders of Swat itself. If the Pakistani government declares the deal with the Taliban forfeit due to numerous violations, it is to be expected those troops will advance into the Swat Valley.

Influenza A (H1N1) Update 3 May 2009 - Some Statistics

There are some people wondering if the media and government attention to the current Influenza A H1N1 outbreak seems to be warranted, or whether there has been too much hype on the topic.

Seems Less Deadly Now

The good news is this strain has not become the “killer pandemic” that has worried epidemiologists for years. Yet it is still a cause for concern.

Even now, a pandemic warning seems prudently warranted. Emphasis on “seems.” Out of the 935 proven cases so far, there have been 23 deaths, for a mortality rate of 2.46%. Out of the suspected 4,585 cases, there have been 101 suspected deaths; a mortality rate of 2.2%.

The good news is that this mortality rate of 2.2% - 2.46% is as little as half that of earlier in the week, when it was calculated to be between 3.4% - 4.3%.

How Bad Can It Get?

Influenza outbreak typically affects 5% - 20% of the population, according to the CDC. If this particular strain of A H1N1 spread worldwide to a maximal uncontrolled extent, that would equate to 335 million to 1.34 billion cases. Given a 2.2% - 2.46% mortality rate, that would equate to global deaths of 8.2 million to 32 million. This is a worst-case scenario, predicated on the mortality rate remaining at >2%, and for 100% of the world to be exposed to infection.

By analogy, consider smaller populations. Take a subway car of 200 New Yorkers. If they all had the flu, pull two of them off the train in body bags. Take a flight of 200 people on an airliner. Pull two off in gurneys sent to the morgue. No one wants to be those two people. No public health official wants that risk.

Those analogies would be if all 200 persons aboard that train or aircraft actually caught the H1N1 virus, and if the present mortality rate remained unchanged. A more accurate analogy would be that, out of a busy subway station or airport, as many as one subway car or aircraft out of five, or as few as one out of twenty, would eventually contain virus-carriers.

If it was a sports stadium of 50,000 people, somewhere between 2,500 - 10,000 would get sick, and somewhere between 50 - 200 would die. Again, predicated on exposure of 100% of the attendees.

That is what would happen if we allowed the virus to remain uncontained, if we took no precautions to prevent the spread of the disease, and if the public remained unwary to seek medical assistance.

Take Care and Due Precaution

This is why minimizing exposure to the virus is so vital, and why those affected should not hesitate to seek help. The more the virus can be contained so it burns out before spreading, the better. The more people who go to the doctor when they feel as if something is just not right the better. Thus, while panic is unwarranted, precaution and care is quite important.

The U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC) has a number of recommendations for preventing seasonal flu, and how to take care of yourself if and when you catch the flu.

Global Understanding wishes everyone the best and safest of spring seasons. Let’s hope this is an emerging crisis that becomes a non-issue with proper care and due diligence.