On May 11, Rehman Malik, the ubiquitous and consistently enervated Pakistani interior minister, declared the military’s ongoing operation against the Taliban in the Swat Valley a resounding success.
“We haven’t given them a chance,” he boasted. “They are on the run. They were not expecting such an offensive”. He added that the operation, then barely a week old, had already killed 700 Taliban. Over the summer the declarations of victory continued: prime minister Yousaf Raza Gilani called the conflict “a great success”; the Pakistan Army spokesman, Major Gen Athar Abbas announced that “we have beaten the Taliban decisively in Swat”.
Since the army maintained a media blackout in the region, there were few voices to dissent from these cries of victory. But the extent of the army’s achievement remains unknown: areas of Swat are still under Taliban control, and many militants simply fled the territory for more favourable terrain elsewhere. What is clear, however, is that the army campaign – waged with heavy artillery and aerial strikes – forced some three million civilians to flee.
After declaring victory in Swat, and under pressure from the Americans to “take the fight to the Taliban”, the Pakistan army announced that it would soon proceed towards Waziristan, the hunting-ground for the Tehrik-i Taliban Pakistan (TTP), whose founder and leader, Baitullah Mehsud, was assassinated by a US drone in early August. The targets struck back with a wave of terrorist attacks in October, many directed against the state itself – killing over 250 Pakistanis and injuring hundreds more.
The violence of the Taliban reprisal blew away the smokescreen of success that had been proclaimed in Swat: it was clear that the offensive, whatever its other accomplishments, had done nothing to undermine the capacity of the Taliban to organise and execute terrorist attacks anywhere in Pakistan – from Islamabad and Peshawar to Lahore. In fact, the self-appointed Taliban in Swat had always been imports from Waziristan, who established a bulwark in Swat by capitalising on local frustration with the federal state – and they easily slipped back into Waziristan as the army began to bombard the valley.
The military has now started to shell South Waziristan with the same fury. The exodus of civilians is under way – more than 250,000 have been displaced.
As before, this human cost does not figure in the army’s calculus. The humanitarian crisis will be left to fester for municipal authorities and the private sector. Already, we have an early declaration of “success” from the Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, who says the Taliban are “on the run”. But on the run to where, exactly? Crossing over the border to southern Afghanistan, perhaps – the neighbouring province of Zabul is already a crucial zone of conflict between Nato troops and the Afghan Taliban.
But it is more likely that they will head south toward Baluchistan and its border city, Quetta – and that, soon enough, the deadly game will continue, this time with Baluchistan in the crosshairs of a new army offensive.
The Taliban are indeed a murderous lot, intent on disrupting and destroying civil society and cowing helpless civilians to their particularly offensive version of piety.
But their success in finding a foothold and destabilising Swat relied not on any appeal to a religious cause or tribal brotherhood but on exploiting existing political and judicial imbalances in the region.
Pakistan’s federally administered areas have never been integrated into the state apparatus – after 62 years, they lack basic infrastructure, any accountable civil administration, working courts or police, and have very few rights in Islamabad. The inhabitants of these regions have long experienced corrosive resource exploitation at the hands of the centre without receiving any benefit to their own communities.