The Pakistani army has claimed to have made great strides in defeating the militant menace in the Swat Valley. However, high-ranking sources tell us these claims are overblown, and what we are seeing is a replay of the cat-and-mouse game the Taliban have been playing with the government for years.
The crisis in Pakistan has been a long time in the making. For the last five years, Swat has been a popular refuge of all sorts of fundamentalist groups, including Saudi-led al Qaeda fundamentalists, the Jaish- e-Muhammad from south Punjab, the Kashmiri fighters Harket-e-Jihad- e-Islami, and a collection of Uzbeks, Afghan Taliban and assorted individual terrorist adventurers. The fundamentalists eventually began to engage in terrorism, looting and subjugating the local population under Afghan-style Taliban rule. This growing menace forced even Swat’s religiously oriented local government to request military intervention. In 2007, the Pakistan army sent more that a division of troops into the area, and most of the militants fled.
In 2008, the army started phase II of the operation, which it claimed was successful but inflicted a great deal of collateral damage while making no worthwhile progress in targeting the hard-core terrorists. This was followed by much trumpeted, hastily concluded and highly discredited peace agreement that allowed the re-establishment of Shariah law in the Swat Valley.
The current third-phase military operations started with lot of fanfare, which compromised the element of surprise and allowed hard-core terrorist commanders like Mullah Maulana Fazlulla, Baitullah Mehsud and commanders of the other terrorist groups to fade into the vastness of the surrounding mountains.
The government claims to have killed hundreds of militants, but the accuracy and reliability of these reports are highly doubtful. According to Interservice public-relations chief Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, so far more than 1,000 militants have been killed. However, no bodies, burials or any footage of these militants have been shown to journalists, who in any case have left Swat.
I spoke to senior retired officials of different Pakistani security agencies who doubt the claims of mass enemy casualties, and feel the critical error was made when Prime Minister Asif Ali Zardari announced on national television at 11 p.m. the night before the operation began that a major military operation was about to be launched. The militants must have fled within hours, even before the operation began.
No high-level terrorist leaders have been captured. The Taliban shaved their beards and cut their hair, blending into the refugee population and slipping through checkpoints set to catch them. There is nothing to prevent the militants from spreading throughout the country. They can regroup in the frontier areas, or head toward major cities and target them with suicide bombs. Another fear is that the Taliban whose families have settled in Swat accompanied their women and children out of the valley to the refugee camps that currently hold 1.5 million people.
I have visited the refugee camps, and the situation there is dire. People suffer scorching heat, lack of food and water or proper sanitation. Disease is spreading rapidly, especially among children, and the government seems powerless to stop it.
Many families are trying to return to their homes in Swat, even under gunfire, saying that given the grave mismanagement of the refugee camps, they would prefer to live among the Taliban. Humanitarian workers told me that, if this crisis in not averted, people would fast lose faith in this operation, and that is exactly what is happening.
Meanwhile the notorious Red Mosque in Islamabad is back in operation after the April 16 release on bail of radical cleric Maulana Abdul Aziz. Aziz was charged with 26 counts of crimes such as kidnapping, murder and harboring wanted al Qaeda operatives. My confidential sources say his release was the result of back-door negotiations between the government, the Aziz family, and some say pressure from Saudi Arabia as well. I also learned through very reliable sources that Aziz did his jail time in house arrest in a lavish Islamabad apartment donated to him and his family.
Money for restoring the Red Mosque has poured in from influential families and real estate developers in the capital, one of whom donated 20 acres of prime property to the fiery cleric for his seminary.
Aziz has left with his family on a trip to Saudi Arabia. Upon his return, he is expected to continue his assault on the government. Sources at the seminary disclosed that he has contacted his personal guards, asking them to return from their safe houses in South Waziristan, where drones hunt them every day. It promises to be a long, hot summer in Pakistan.
Jasmeen Manzoor is a senior journalist and political analyst at Business Plus TV, Pakistan.