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.
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.
- Pakistani military: Frontier Corps province forces bolstered by heavy armor, artillery and paratroopers positioned around the Swat Valley in preparation for an offensive. Totaling approximately 15,000 troops. While the Pakistani Army has a total force of 550,000 regular troops, there has not yet been a dramatic shift in defensive posture in the nation. About half of Pakistan’s forces, approximately 250,000 soldiers, remain deployed against the border with India, Pakistan’s traditional enemy.
- Pakistani police: This force has proven so far to be the least reliable of the government forces. When the Taliban first advanced through the Swat Valley region, 700 of total 1,700 police officers abandoned their posts. However, they are regrouping since their initial defeats. In the NWFP capital of Peshawar, antiterrorist police forces killed 88 suspected terrorists in the past few months.
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.