Pakistan, from Swat to Baluchistan via Waziristan

May 22, 2009

The Pakistan Army is engaged in what appears to be a very nasty little war in the Swat valley against heavily armed Taliban militants.  With journalists having left Swat, there have been no independent reports of what is going on there, though the scale of the operation can be partly measured by the huge numbers of refugees – nearly 1.7 million – who fled to escape the military offensive.

Dawn newspaper carried an interview with a wounded soldier saying the Taliban had buried mines and planted IEDs every 50 metres.  ‘They positioned snipers in holes made out of the walls of houses. They used civilians as human shields. They used to attack from houses and roofs,” it quoted him as saying. ‘They are well equipped, they have mortars. They have rockets, sniper rifles and every type of sophisticated weapons.”

Al Jazeera’s correspondent said that the battle was about to get worse as the army prepared to enter Mingora, the main town in the Swat valley. The BBC’s Urdu service managed to talk to a couple of people trapped inside Mingora, one of whom mentioned coming across an Arab among a group of militants.

President Asif Ali Zardari has talked of extending the battle into Waziristan, believed to be the hideout of al Qaeda, and now Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, has said a U.S. military offensive in southern Afghanistan could push Taliban fighters from there into Pakistan’s Baluchistan province. (To get a sense of the geographical scale of this, scroll down to the map at the bottom of this page to see how far Quetta, the main city in Baluchistan, is from the Swat valley.) Mullen said both U.S. and Pakistani forces were aware of the risk of a spillover from Afghanistan into Pakistan, and were planning measures to prevent it.

He did not say how they would do this, although the Wall Street Journal said earlier this week that the United States was sending 25 to 50 Special Forces personnel into Baluchistan to train Pakistanis, bringing U.S. troops deeper into Pakistan. The Special Forces would focus on training Pakistan’s Frontier Corps, but were not meant to fight alongside them, it said. But it added, “A senior American military officer said he hoped Islamabad would gradually allow the U.S. to expand its training footprint inside Pakistan’s borders. A former U.S. official familiar with the plans said the deployments would ‘get more American eyes and ears’ into the strategically important region.”

U.S. officials say Quetta is the base for the Afghan Taliban and its leader Mullah Omar, who are able to hide in the Afghan refugee camps that sprang up after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. (Mukhtar Khan at CTC Sentinel has a detailed report on the Afghan Taliban in Quetta which you can find by scrolling down on this pdf document.)

But taking on the Afghan Taliban in Baluchistan, while also chasing the Pakistan Taliban out of Swat, and pursuing al Qaeda in Waziristan would be a massive operation. It’s not clear whether there is some kind of masterplan and timeline for all this that we have yet to be told about, or if as Cyril Almeida worries in a column in Dawn, the Pakistan government is simply “steering blindfolded” with “a mix of lucky breaks and nonsense planning.”

Nor is it clear how all this fits into the plans set out by the U.S. administration of President Barack Obama for Afghanistan and Pakistan, which are looking more and more in need of revision every day.

(Photos taken at Baine Baba Ziarat mountain in Swat during trip organised by Pakistan Army/Mian Kursheed)

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