Pakistan’s South Waziristan operation: defeat or dispersal?

November 7, 2009

Pakistan’s military offensive in South Waziristan appears to be showing considerably more success than earlier attempts to take control of the tribal region on the Afghan border, at least according to army accounts which are the only real source of information. 

But will it turn the tide in Pakistan’s battle against Islamist militants? A few articles which have appeared over the last few days give pause for thought.

Dawn newspaper says in an editorial the Taliban have “been subdued, not vanquished”.

“Before operation Rah-i-Najat was launched, the army put the Taliban strength at about 10,000. Since the maximum number of Taliban fatalities has been put at about 500, those not taken prisoner may have slipped into North Waziristan or the adjoining settled districts. They must be pursued relentlessly without being given a chance to reorganise, and the nation ought to be told what strategy the authorities have up their sleeve to finish the job.”

And to achieve lasting success, the civilian administration is going to have to provide the kind of basic development – schools, roads, healthcare, electricity – that the refugees quoted in this Los Angeles Times article say they are hoping for. 

But that might prove difficult at a time when the country’s political parties – rather than focusing on development and political reforms to convince people to back the government rather than the Taliban — are once again embroiled in the kind of in-fighting that has destroyed civilian democracy in the past.

Writing in Gulf newspaper The National, historian Manan Ahmed worries about the Pakistani Taliban spilling into Baluchistan and finding fertile ground for growth among a people unhappy with the government in Islamabad.  The province is already home to a separatist Baluch insurgency. “The true crisis facing Pakistan is not the Taliban,” he writes. It is instead the state’s failure to provide political and economic rights to the many different people and ethnic groups who make up the country.

The Pakistan Army this year has driven the Taliban out of the Swat valley and is on the way to pushing them out of their South Waziristan stronghold.  But can the civilian government provide the administrative backbone needed to ensure the military operations eventually defeat rather than merely displace the Taliban? The signs are not lookingpromising.

(A word on comments: my last post elicited some very interesting and insightful comments for which many thanks.  But I’d like to ask everyone again to avoid polemics and focus on making points which take the discussion forward.)

(File photos of refugees from Swat during a dust-storm)

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