Pakistan: Now or Never?
Last week’s suicide bombing in Pakistan’s Bajaur region, which killed at least 40 people, had a grim predictability to it. The Pakistan Army cleared Pakistani Taliban militants out of their main strongholds in Bajaur, which borders Afghanistan’s Kunar province, after 20 months of intense fighting which ended earlier this year. But as discussed in this post in October the insurgents’ ability to flee to Kunar — where the U.S. military presence has been thinned out — combined with a failure to provide Bajaur with good governance, suggested the security situation in the region was likely to be deteriorating. The bombing appeared to confirm those fears.
U.S. defence officials, in a ringing vote of confidence, said over the weekend that Pakistan had the forces and equipment to launch a long-awaited ground offensive in South Waziristan. It could mount this assault without seeking more reinforcements, a U.S. official said, according to this Reuters report. Yet Pakistan had cited in recent months shortages of helicopters, armoured vehicles and precision weapons in putting off a Waziristan assault.So what has changed? Has the United States, desperate to turn around a faltering war in Afghanistan, got ahead of itself in nudging Pakistan toward “the mother-of-all battles”? Some people are asking if the Pakistan Army is really ready to start what must be its bigest test yet since the militants turned on the Pakistani state. If the idea is to go in and linflict casualties on the Taliban in the hope of killing senior leaders, then it will be another punitive strike for which the force levels may well be adequate.But if the Pakistan Army plans to go into the Mehsud strongholds and occupy the region then the numbers are a bit worrying, says Bill Roggio at The Long War Journal. A Pakistan Army spokesman has said that two divisions, or up to 28,000 soldiers, are in place to take on an estimated 10,000 hard-core Taliban. But Roggio says Waliur Rehman Mehsud, who heads the Mehsud Taliban forces in Waziristan, (Hakimullah Mehsud who surfaced at the weekend is the overall head of the Pakistani Taliban) is estimated to command anything between 10,000 to 30,000 forces. If the army were to wage a full-scale counter-insurgency they and the Frontier Corps “would need to throw multiple divisions against a Taliban force of this size,” he argues. And then there is the Haqqani network, as well as a sizeable contingent of Uzbek and other non-Pakistani fighters in the area. They may well join the fight, according to the Dawn newspaper. (more…)
A new poll shows public opinion in Pakistan has turned sharply against the Taliban and other Islamist militants, even though they still do not trust the United States and President Barack Obama. Reporting on the poll, our Asia specialist in Washington, Paul Eckert, said the WorldPublicOpinion.org poll, conducted in May as Pakistan's army fought the Taliban in the Swat Valley, found that 81 percent saw the Pakistani Taliban and al Qaeda as a critical threat to the country, a jump from 34 percent in a similar poll in late 2007. Read Eckert's report here.
One theory about how to deal with militant Islamism calls for promoting Sufism, the mystical school of Islam known for its tolerance, as a potent antidote to more radical readings of the faith. Promoted for several years now by U.S.-based think tanks such as Rand and the Heritage Institute, a Sufi-based approach arguably enjoys an advantage over other more politically or economically based strategies because it offers a faith-based answer that comes from within Islam itself. After trying so many other options for dealing with the Taliban militants now openly challenging it, the Pakistani government now seems ready to try this theory out. Just at the time when it's suffered a stinging set-back in practice...
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.
Ahmed Rashid’s article on Pakistan in the New York Review of Books makes for an alarming read. Excerpts do not do justice to it, as you have to read the whole thing to understand why he thinks Pakistan really is on the brink, but here are a few: