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Is Victory Achievable in Pakistan’s War on the Taliban

Although army security operations are under way in most of Pakistan’s tribal areas and some of have even been declared cleared of armed Taliban, there is no reason to believe the onslaught of radicalism that started with the dollar-fuelled anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan in the 1980s will end soon.

Even as the head of the Pakistan Army, General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, was in the Orakzai tribal agency at the beginning of the month to declare victory over the armed Taliban and announce the end of military operations there, militants who were most likely trained in that lawless region, carried out two daring attacks in nearby Lahore. And since Kayani’s visit, security forces continue to report clashes and casualties in Orakzai, prompting dazed locals to wonder what exactly he meant.

In conventional wars, both sides occupy territory and victory is declared when one side withdraws and the other takes control of the battlefield. But the Taliban in Pakistan (and in neighboring Afghanistan) is not defending territory. They shift their bases continuously and so are able to launch fresh strikes almost immediately after the army or U.S. drones chase them from a particular area.

Take, for example, the highly publicized NATO operation in the Marja district of Afghanistan’s Helmand Province. NATO declared victory there about three months ago, but locals say the Taliban have already returned to the district, are carrying out targeted killings, intimidating locals, and collecting zakat and ushr (“taxes” usually amounting to 10 percent of what locals produce).

The same appears to be the case in Pakistan’s Orakzai, where hundreds of families were uprooted from their farms and houses and are still living in camps or with relatives in Peshawar. They say they are unwilling to return home because armed gangs are still in the area and are as powerful as they were before the army’s operation to eliminate them.

Or look at South Waziristan. Security forces launched a clearing operation there last October and declared victory within a few months. But the people who were displaced by the much-ballyhooed sweep are still living in tent camps and are unwilling to return to their homes.

Or, let’s go back even further and look at Bajaur. It has been nearly two years since the army launched its clearing operation there in August 2008, but there is still no civilian administration there and displaced persons have yet to leave their tent camps.

The closest thing to a success story is Swat. There, displaced locals returned to the area three months after the security sweep was launched in May 2009. However, targeted killings, intimidation by armed bands, and bombings have not yet been fully brought under control.

Moreover, the civilian administration has yet to take full charge of affairs in Swat because the army is still there. There are still security barricades and checkpoints and in some areas farmers have not been allowed to plant their crops, apparently out of security concerns.

The ongoing "war on terror" in Pakistan is not a territorial battle between the army and the Taliban. The militants are not in a position to hold territory against the might of the army. But they are capable of undermining civilian administrations. The government can only declare victory in this war after an area that has been cleared of militants has been successfully returned to civilian administration and locals have resumed living peacefully. And this has not been the case yet in Bajaur, South Waziristan, Orakzai, or even (fully) in Swat.

By Daud Khattak




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