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.

1 comment:

  1. I have always wondered why the USA chose a country as unstable (and borderline-psychotic) as Pakistan to be a major ally in the risible "War on an Emotion". To me it seems akin to asking Charles Manson for assistance in fighting criminal cults.

    Now we're having a "lie down with dogs, get up with fleas" situation as one crisis after another threatens to destroy these hitherto extremely unreliable allies.