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Guardian: Survivors in a Peshawar hospital

On Tuesday, news agencies reported that up to 71 civilians were killed in a weekend air strike by Pakistani jets in the Khyber tribal agency. However, the Pakistani military has yet to confirm the deaths as civilian casualties, and military spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas emphasized that the army “had intelligence that militants were gathering at the site of the strike.”

On Tuesday though, the story was confirmed by an anonymous government official, who said authorities “had already handed out the equivalent of $125,000 in compensation to families of the victims,” a development further backed by The Guardian, which cited residents who had received the money.

News agencies interviewed two survivors of the air strike today, who were in a hospital in Peshawar, and stated that most people were killed “when they were trying to rescue people trapped by an earlier strike on the house of a village elder.” One survivor, identified as Khanan Gul Khan, told the Associated Press, “This house was bombed on absolutely wrong information. This area has nothing to do with militants.” Khan’s statement echoed Ikramullah Jan Kukikhel, a tribal elder who spoke to The Guardian by phone, noting, “The Kukikhel [tribe] are with the government. We have never joined the Taliban or any other fundamentalist group. We are normal people who just want peace for the country.”

Reading this horrific news today, a few points struck me. First, 71 people are not just a statistic of this war, the unavoidable collateral of conflict. If the news coverage is accurate, this was avoidable. The fact that it occurred doesn’t just reflect “poorly on the security apparatus’ intelligence-gathering capacity,” as Dawn’s editorial suggested. It also is a testament to how little we know about this war, (see Huma Imtiaz’s fantastic related piece) and how counterinsurgency is more than a trendy term to throw around. Yes, “the battle for hearts and minds” has become a cliched and overused term, but the Pakistani military must understand that denying air strikes and civilian casualties may blindfold the larger public, but it undermines their campaign with the people directly impacted by their actions.

At the end of the day, the local residents in the military’s area of operations are the ones who must be ensured safety and protection. Giving the victims’ families compensation, or “blood money,” does little more than bandage a wound. It cheapens the gravity of a tragedy. And it is certainly not enough.

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A month ago, the Pakistani military began its long-awaited ground offensive into South Waziristan to defeat the Tehreek-e-Taliban. Nearly two weeks ago, Pakistani forces took Sararogha, the reported militants’ capital. On Tuesday, they “escorted” several Western journalists on a restricted tour of the area. According to the NY Times, “militants appear to have been dispersed, not eliminated, with most simply fleeing.” The tour reads similar to a class show-and-tell, with Army officers eager to portray the recent successes as tangible proof that the offensive was running smoothly. Officials displayed piles of items they had seized, “including weapons, bombs, photos and even a long, curly wig.”  Al Jazeera also noted that journalists were shown “purported Taliban pamphlets, including one on making bombs, captured ammunition and weapons, and pouched vests that suicide bombers pack with explosives.”

Commander Brig. Muhammed Shafiq told reporters, “It all started from here. This is the most important town in South Waziristan.” The Washington Post, in its coverage, reported,

Once in Sararogha, they [Army] found ample evidence of a Taliban mini-state. A school had been turned into a militia training center and courthouse, with classes in how to manufacture improvised explosives and formal hearings on local disputes. Directives on Taliban letterhead, left scattered in empty rooms, ordered certain mullahs to be given weapons and decreed that no marriage dowry should cost more than $900.

According to Shafiq,  the Army faced “stiff resistance” trying to take over Sararogha, which they first attacked by air before sending in ground forces. After facing rocket attacks and artillery from militants in the surrounding hills, the military finally prevailed after a five-day battle, capturing the town. According to military spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, the military has reportedly taken 50 percent of Mehsud territory, “including most major towns and roads.” Abbas noted the Army “would soon begin to press into villages where militants were hiding.” Brig. Farrukh Jamal, at nearby Laddha, was quoted by Al Jazeera as saying, “They are hiding in caves and we will capture them soon or kill them.” [As expected, a Taliban spokesman who spoke to Dawn Wednesday denied the military's claim, saying they had merely vacated the area and would retake it later.]

As always, these successes are tainted by the underlying truth – that this war is not going to be over any time soon.  In the COIN mantra of clear, hold, and build, clearing has never been the Pakistani Army’s problem – it’s been how to hold onto these areas and ensure the Taliban does not return in their absence. The NY Times quoted Talat Masood, who asserted, “Are they really winning the people — this is the big question. They have weakened the Taliban tactically, but have they really won the area if the people are not with them?” In the case of Sararogha, the 10,000 person town was completely deserted, meaning there were essentially no people to win over. Moreover, given the lack of services provided to the displaced families from the area, it may be hard for the people to trust anyone upon their return, let alone the state. Also, noted the Times, “Finding a reliable local partner will be difficult,” given that militants “have altered its social structure, killing hundreds of tribal elders and making it hard for the military to negotiate.”

In the meantime, terrorist attacks continue to strike the rest of the country, particularly Peshawar, which has been heavily hit in the past few weeks. A suicide attack outside a judicial complex on Thursday killed 16 people and wounded 36, reported Dawn News.

On a lighter note, the NY Times At War blog posted some really interesting photos reportedly confiscated from homes during the offensive. Taken with “inexpensive automatic cameras,” the photos almost seem like a Taliban-esque fashion show, with militants brandishing rocket launchers with avant garde abandon. Without further ado, I give you Taliban Fashion Week:

NYT: Mehsy (left) sports the latest Tartan style, while Mehsy (right) displays his new kicks.

NYT: These fellows are sporting the latest Taliban headgear fashion! Aren't they just darling?

NYT: You're a lion! A lion! Roar at the camera! Roar!

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SonofaLion - NiazSA

Son of a Lion, Carolyn Johnson Productions

Son of a Lion, the feature film debut by Australian filmmaker Benjamin Gilmour, tells the story of a young Pashtun boy Niaz Afridi. Though Niaz is from Pakistan’s tribal weapon-making village of Darra Adam Khel, he defies his father’s expectation to carry on the family’s gun making business by demanding an education. The film, which has drawn critical acclaim at international film festivals and is a 2008 Independent Spirit Award Winner, is significant because it explores the nuances of the Pashtun culture and attempts to break down stereotypes of a group often lumped together with the Taliban. Son of a Lion opens in select theaters in the United Kingdom November 6, [see Mara Pictures for further information]. Below is CHUP’s Q&A with Gilmour:

Q: You went from being a medic on a film set in London to filming your first movie in the dangerous terrain of northwest Pakistan. What inspired you to make the jump into film and why did you choose to go to Pakistan for your first project?

For a few years following the 9/11 attacks in New York, I was working as personal medic to Hollywood celebrities whenever they were in London for film shoots. It was while looking after Sharon Stone that I realized how far I had strayed from my mission in life. Paramedics, like most health professionals, are generally imbued with compassion and a sense of justice. Did I train for five years to dish out headache tablets to famous people? The vacuousness, materialism and selfishness of the world in which I inhabited began to frustrate me and I knew my calling was far greater.

In addition to this, having traveled as a tourist in Pakistan in August 2001, I had been deeply touched by the country. Immediately after crossing into Pakistan from India, my wife and I were overwhelmed by the difference in attitudes towards us. We were struck by the kindness and generosity of Pakistanis, whatever their ethnicity. In particular, when we ended up in Peshawar to shop for textiles, we were impressed by the extreme hospitality and good nature of the Pashtuns. A year later, the memory of ‘gupshup’ with the Pashtuns chased me on the film sets of London. The terrorist attacks in NYC had set off a wave of Islamaphobia and outright Muslim hatred in the West, perpetuated by governments and media outlets who ought to have been less hysterical. I was angry and it spurred me into thinking about way in which I could balance out the stigmas and fear-mongering. Being exposed to film as I was at that time convinced me that film as medium had tremendous power to influence people worldwide. This is how film became my weapon to fight Islamaphobia and misconceptions of Pashtuns.

Q: The film, Son of a Lion, goes beyond just touching upon a father-son narrative and really delves into the Pashtun identity, which is significant given the many misconceptions that exist about this group. How did you go about befriending the Pathans you met in the area and how were they part of the creative process of the film?

Shooting this film was a great lesson to me about the Pashtun psyche. This film is a drama, not a documentary, so I needed to find actors willing to participate and there was a great deal of reluctance at first. Film is not generally a medium considered by conservative types in FATA as something acceptable. Judging by some of the Pashto films in the market, I can understand why. But film does not have to include negative and damaging information. Indeed, if film is used by the right people in the right way for the common good of humanity, it can be beautiful and uplifting. Even the Taliban and Al Qaeda have YouTube accounts and make films for Al Jazeera! In no way did I want ‘Son of a Lion’ to be a Western perspective of Pathans. This would be too obvious and has already been done by too many ignorant news stations and I despise it. For the film to be a real glimpse of Pashtun mentality, I knew I needed actors who would improvise.

Befriending a Pathan is not easy as an outsider as they are notoriously suspicious about the intentions of Westerners. This comes as no surprise after so many Western nations have tried to control them, failing dismally each time. For me it took months of waiting in Lahore, teaching film at IQRA University and then countless cups of tea with contacts in Peshawar and villagers in Orakzai trying to convince them to help me. I mean, by the end of pre-production I needed a bladder transplant, that’s how much tea I had to drink for this film!

When I mentioned the word ‘honor‘, the fact I could not return to Australia without a feature film, most of the Pathans felt obliged to assist me I suppose, thanks to Paktunwali. Nevertheless, I believe they were genuinely convinced I wanted to represent them in the best possible light and saw this film as platform to show the world who they were as a people. When those who are frustrated and angry do not have a proper platform to express themselves, they often resort to violence and I think this is part of the problem in FATA. Pashtun tribes have not been consulted about the best way forward in dealing with militancy in their midst. Musharraf‘s negotiation’s with the tribes doesn’t count, as he was also pandering to Taliban. The real Pashtun voice is rarely heard in the Western media. In making this film, I was offering locals a chance to send the world a message in the form of an entertaining drama.

As a consequence, each actor was given the freedom to make up their own dialogues, to help shape the whole story, and to bring their own material to the process continuously. We see news footage of the security situation daily. What we don’t see are the feelings of Pashtuns. My story was about challenging misconceptions about a group with whom we are quite unnecessarily at war with.

Q: Your film tells the story of 11-year-old Niaz who lives with his father Sher Alam Afridi in a small town, where for generations the local population has earned its living by producing weapons. Niaz, however, wants to receive an education. This is such an important message – what do you hope audiences will take away from the film?

The real message in this film is, I believe, that when it comes to ‘change’ in the world of Pashtuns, its a very slow-burning evolution. One cannot say to a Pashtun, ‘Look, we think you should join the wider Pakistan, lose your autonomy and modernize or we’ll send in the army’. It just won’t work. In the film, Niaz sees the value of an education that includes science, languages, mathematics and so on. Although these subjects can be part of madrassa curriculum, in the FATA they tend to be left out. Niaz, as the son of a Pashtun, challenges his traditionalist father, which is a big thing in this culture to do. The boy wants an education and his father wants him to carry on in his gun factory. The only individual on earth who can possibly change a father’s way of thinking is perhaps his own son. This is the message, that when it comes to Pathans, any change must come from within, must be between father and son, mother and daughter, brother and sister to be effective. It cannot be enforced by outsiders like the Pakistani Army or NATO or US predator drones. True change will never come at the barrel of a gun.

Q: Have the people in the villages you filmed in seen the film? What was their reaction?

Yes, those in the villages and towns where Son of a Lion was shot have seen it and were thrilled. One or two were unhappy with the fact that I made a comparison between madrassa and government schools. Of course, I don’t have any problems with madrassas at all, I believe that in the absence of properly-functioning government schools, a madrassa is often the best option so long as it does not advocate violence. I do however believe in a well-rounded education and this means that in addition to religious instruction every child is entitled to satiate their inquisitive minds about life and nature and health, to learn skills for future employment opportunities and most importantly, to understand their human rights.

So let’s have madrassas in FATA with a wider curriculum. All those involved in the film are, above all, ecstatic there is a film depicting them not as murderous extremists but as innocent men, women and children caught in the middle of a greater game in which they are but victims, pleading for a little understanding and compassion from the outside world. One day, they hope, we will see them for who they really are.

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An Era of Citizen Resolve

AP Photo: Students Chant Slogans at a Rally in Islamabad

AP Photo: Students Chant Slogans at a Rally in Islamabad

On Saturday, the Pakistani Army announced it had captured Kotkai, a town “important for both its symbolic and strategic value.” Kotkai, the home of the new Tehreek-e-Taliban chief Hakimullah Mehsud and militant commander Qari Hussain, was reportedly taken after “intense fighting” between the military and Taliban in South Waziristan. According to the NY Times, “It was the first notable sign of progress in what military analysts say will be an arduous slog for the army against a resilient enemy.”

While these tactical victories are necessary for the military to gain ground in South Waziristan, they are overshadowed by the continuing onslaught of terror attacks in the rest of Pakistan. On Saturday, the same day as the Kotkai capture, at least 32 people were killed in three separate attacks throughout the country. Pakistan’s information minister Qamar Zaman Kaira told reporters that recent attacks have killed about 200 people total. And, while much of the violence has targeted Pakistan’s security apparatus – from the Army’s General Headquarters to Pakistan’s Aeronautical Complex – devastating bombings also struck Islamabad’s International Islamic University last week, killing 6 students and causing the government to shut down all schools, colleges and universities for five days.

Amid all this chaos and confusion, Pakistan’s crisis of leadership has been made all the more apparent. In his column, aptly titled, “Where Are You, Our Leaders,” Cyril Almeida wrote,

We’ve heard a thousand times how a successful counter-insurgency needs the support of the people. But right now it feels like it’s us, the people, against the ubiquitous suicide bombers and fidayeen attackers, with our leaders hiding inside their bombproof houses and cars and behind walls of impenetrable security.

Within this vacuum, local citizens are taking the reins. This weekend, students in Islamabad and Karachi took to the streets, denouncing all acts of terrorism and protesting the closure of educational institutions. In Karachi, Pakistanis from various universities formed a group, Jaag Meray Talib-e-Ilm, and demonstrated outside the Karachi Press Club on Saturday. On the Laidback Show, bloggers Faisal Kapadia and Awab Alvi interviewed some of the students at the rally [see the video here]. One passionate girl told them, “We are requesting the government to provide us [universities] with security. We are appealing to the students of Pakistan to stand with us…this cannot go on..education is essential for our future.”

Tazeen, who teaches at a private university in Karachi, wrote at A Reluctant Mind,

In two days time, they [students] managed to not only mobilize other students and made their presence felt with out any prior activism experience; they did so in face of opposition from their parents and families who tried to discourage them from stepping out of the secure confines of their homes. They did it when a local TV channel aired the news that a suspected bomber wearing a suicide jacket was seen in the vicinity of the area of protest.

In Islamabad, Pakistan Young Journalists Forum (PYJF), in collaboration with the Pyaam Foundation and Future Leaders of Pakistan (FLP) organized a peace rally at the International Islamic University on Sunday. The rally, led by Pyaam Foundation founder Basit Subhani, PYJF President Rahat Kazmi, and FLP’s Faiz Paracha, stopped at the sites where the attackers struck the university, showering rose petals and praying for the victims of the bombings, as well as the army and police officials killed in terrorist attacks. According to the Daily Times, the protesters “said the people would not succumb to terrorists, who wanted to destabilize the country. They expressed resolve to get together against terrorists.”

This inspirational, awe-spiring show of citizen resolve by no means absolves our government of blame. Pakistan’s leaders should be the figures encouraging these movements. While our Army is fighting the war against the Taliban, they should be ensuring that universities and schools are provided with security, that suicide attackers are not falling through the cracks in Pakistan’s cities. They should be providing food and shelter to the hundreds of thousands displaced by the conflict. So far, they have failed in every regard. Meanwhile, the country’s youth has stepped forward, showing that, despite efforts to instill fear in the nation, they at least will not be terrorized.

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BBC News: The South Waziristan Offensive

BBC News: The South Waziristan Offensive

Day 3 of the Army’s much-anticipated ground offensive in South Waziristan was underway Monday, and Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas met with reporters to update them on the operation’s progress. According to news agencies, the Pakistan Army is “ahead of schedule” by 36 hours, advancing up to 15 kilometers (9 miles) into the mountainous area. In the last 24 hours, Abbas added, forces have “enveloped” Kotkai, the town of Taliban commander Qari Hussain, while guerrillas have “taken positions on mountains.” According to the military spokesman, 78 militants and nine soldiers have been killed since the offensive launched Saturday. The spokesman from the Taliban’s camp, not surprisingly, offered contradictory numbers, countering that militants have inflicted “heavy casualties” on government troops. Given that there is no way to verify either statements [reporters are barred from South Waziristan], I wanted to provide a breakdown of what we do know, [or at least what we know better]:

1. The Rah-e-Nijat offensive ["Path to Salvation"] has been a long time coming. In June 2009, the military announced this new offensive into South Waziristan, but only unleashed artillery and air strikes on the area, weakening the militant stronghold but certainly not defeating it. There were several reasons for this, but I shall highlight one of the main ones. In June, a spokesman from Gul Bahadur‘s militant group in North Waziristan [a rival of Mehsud's Taliban] announced they were scrapping their peace deal “because of U.S. drone strikes in the region.” The Taliban faction had initially agreed to sit on the sidelines during the military’s South Waziristan offensive, but the disintegration of the deal complicated the Army’s chance at success in the region. As the BBC’s Syed Shoaib Hasan noted back in July, “no one has ever defeated a combined insurgency in the Waziristan area.”

However, according to news agencies, the army has once again “come to an understanding” with Bahadur’s group as well as the Taliban faction of Maulvi Nasir to keep them from fighting against the government during the offensive. According to the Associated Press, not only do the groups agree to not join the Mehsud Taliban’s forces, “They will also allow the army to move through their own lands unimpeded, giving the military additional fronts from which to attack the Taliban.” The news agency added, “The agreements underscore Pakistan’s past practice of targeting only militant groups that attack the government or its forces inside Pakistan.” The issue of U.S. and NATO troops across the border is therefore a different matter entirely, and will probably mean the current offensive will have little to no impact on the U.S. war in Afghanistan. Moreover, while the Army is terming this as no more than an “understanding,” it will be interesting to see how this loose alliance will pan out in the long-term. Because the Army must break up the enemy, the deal is tactically necessary in the short-term, but may be strategically problematic later on.

2. Who is the Army fighting in the offensive? We have just established who the military is not fighting in this operation. In Rah-e-Nijat, being termed “the mother of all battles,” the Army is seeking to destroy the Taliban faction of the late Baitullah Mehsud, who was killed in a drone strike in August and succeeded by Hakimullah Mehsud. The militants are said to number between 5,000 – 15,000.

This number includes “some hundred” to 2,000 pissed off Uzbek fighters. According to Dawn, “The reported death of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) leader Tahir Yuldashev in a drone attack in South Waziristan in August was a big blow to the violent foreign militant group that was waging a fierce campaign against Pakistan and its state agencies.” The Uzbek militants and other foreign fighters will reportedly “provide some stiff resistance,” mainly because they “have few places they can escape to,” noted a Dawn editorial.

The new Mehsud [who I dubbed Mehsud 2.0 in this post] recently vowed to launch a wave of attacks in Pakistan’s main cities, a threat we saw come to life last week. The breadth and reach of the recent violence, though, means the Mehsud Taliban has alliances with militant groups in  other parts of the country, particularly in Punjab, [i.e., the Lashkar-e-Jhanghvi and the Jaish-e-Muhammad]. Therefore, although the military is targeting the Mehsud stronghold in South Waziristan, it is unlikely attacks in major cities will stop, unless the government plans to target these organizations as well. [This point was illustrated Tuesday, when suicide bombers struck Islamabad's International Islamic University.]

3. The Army’s sent 28,000 additional troops to South Waziristan. That’s good right? On paper, sure. Pakistan’s forces against roughly 10,000 militants is a ratio of 3:1. However, this isn’t your run-of-the-mill conventional warfare. This is counterinsurgency. According to a defense analyst who spoke to NPR Monday, the number of troops are far “too low,” and such numbers “will force them into guerrilla warfare that could last for years.” Over at the Long War Journal, Bill Roggio cited a study done by Sameer Lalwani at the New America Foundation, who noted, “Between 370,000 and 430,000 more troops would be needed in the FATA and the NWFP region to meet the minimum force-to-population ratios prescribed by counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine, much higher than current Pakistani deployments of 150,000 [overall in the region].” This is in part due to the “demographic and topographic terrain” of the region which are ideal for protracted insurgency and therefore call for much “higher than average force ratios and far more military assets than Pakistan possesses.”

With winter fast-approaching, time is not on the Army’s side, though Newsline‘s Nadir Hassan conceded, “the harsh conditions may be to the army’s benefit. For over two decades, until a ceasefire was negotiated in 2003, Pakistan’s troops had been fighting the Indians to a standstill in Siachen. The topography and weather of Siachen is like South Waziristan on steroids and the experience should give an advantage to the army.” At the same time, though, the military has been and will continue to face stiff resistance from militants in the region, ultimately meaning the operation will last longer than the predicted few weeks.

What is still unclear is the fate of the over 170,000 people displaced by the South Waziristan operation, [also highlighted at the Zeitgeist Politics]. Families began leaving the region in June, following the military’s announcement of Rah-e-Nijat, and settling mainly in Dera Ismail Khan and Tank. According to McClatchy News, “The refugees are being offered no food, blankets or other aid, however, no camps have been set up for them and resentment against the government and army is growing fast. The government halted aid in September, apparently in an attempt to prevent it from making its way into the hands of the Taliban.” In an interview with BBC News Monday, correspondent Syed Shoaib Hasan echoed that adequate supplies have not been provided so far to the rising number of IDPs, and spoke further on the issue of militants potentially hiding amongst the displaced. Despite the registration points that have been set up, he noted, “it is very difficult to tell who is Taliban and who is not.”

Given that Waziristan has never been truly “conquered,” and recent offensives have only been “partially successful,” [ending in peace deals rather than military control], it seems we have a tough, wintry road ahead of us.

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Maulvi Umar Captured?

AP: A man who Duniya TV identifies as Maulvi Umar

AP: A man who Duniya TV identifies as Maulvi Umar

First Baitullah Mehsud, then his close aide Qari Saifullah, now his spokesman Maulvi Umar. Judging by some accounts, the Tehreek-e-Taliban are dropping like flies. According to news agencies today, Pakistan’s Frontier Corps arrested Maulvi Umar in Mohmand Agency late Monday, along with two of his associates. The Associated Press quoted local administrator Javed Khan who said, “Maulvi Umar is in our custody, and he is being questioned.” The news agency added in its coverage, “…three intelligence officials said local tribal elders assisted troops in locating Omar in the village of Khawazeo. The officials… said Umar’s arrest would likely be publicly announced later Tuesday.”

Much like the Baitullah Mehsud “is he dead or not” controversy, though, news agencies are reporting rumors ahead of an official announcement, or prior to authorities presenting Maulvi Umar “before journalists.” The details are once again vague. Although the aforementioned local administrator affirmed the TTP spokesman was in their custody, Major Fazul Ul Rehman merely told the AFP, “A very, very important militant has been arrested.”

If Maulvi Umar is revealed to reporters later today, it will be the second arrest of a major Taliban militant in 24 hours. Yesterday, police officials said they had arrested a militant commander and close Mehsud aide who was being treated in a private hospital in Islamabad after a drone strike in South Waziristan. Dawn reported that Qari Saifullah, a mediator between Baitullah Mehsud’s TTP and Al Qaeda, “was staying in a house with Zaid Akram [an aide] and some ‘high-value’ targets for treatment of injuries he had received in a drone attack in Afghanistan or Waziristan last month.”

Again, the details are confusing. Why would a top militant commander, one who was on Pakistan’s most wanted list, come to the nation’s capital to be treated for his injuries? Like a lamb coming into the lion’s den, it reads as more than a little counterintuitive.

Meanwhile, the Baitullah Mehsud controversy continues. The death of the TTP commander has not been fully confirmed, though U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke told reporters yesterday, “The reason it’s clear he’s dead is that if he weren’t dead, he’d be giving TV and radio interviews to prove he’s not dead.” Last week, Maulvi Umar, the spokesman believed to have been arrested today, contested U.S. and Pakistani claims that Mehsud was dead, saying “he will speak to reporters when he feels better.” According to CNN, “DNA tests were reportedly being conducted to back up these claims [that he's dead], but U.S. officials have expressed doubt that enough genetic material would be left behind, considering the enormity of the strike.”

At least in Maulvi Umar’s case, authorities won’t have to deal with those pesky DNA issues to prove his arrest. According to BBC News, “Correspondents say that his arrest may provide key information about the Taliban’s recent operations and especially the mystery surrounding the status of Baitullah Mehsud.” Do you think his arrest will mark a major blow to the Taliban, or a more symbolic victory for the Pakistani military? Finally, should news agencies report stories until they’ve been fully confirmed?

UPDATE 1744 PST: A Pakistani intelligence official interrogating Maulvi Umar Tuesday said the spokesman acknowledged Baitullah Mehsud’s death. CHUP will provide more details as reports come in.

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Image Credit: NY Times, Soldiers on patrol in Swat

On Tuesday, news agencies cited a militant spokesman from Hafiz Gul Bahadur‘s group in North Waziristan, who said they were “scrapping” their peace deal with the government because of U.S. drone strikes in the region. The Taliban faction had initially agreed to stay on the sidelines during the offensive against Baitullah Mehsud in neighboring South Warizistan.

However, Bahadur’s spokesman Ahmedullah Ahmedi [who spoke over the phone from an undisclosed location] told reporters, “Our leadership has decided that as long as U.S. drone attacks continue and security forces stay here, there will be no peace agreement.” The BBC also cited him adding that the  group “would now carry out attacks on military targets in the region until the army left and U.S. drones strikes were halted.”

In the past, reported the Wall Street Journal, the rivalry between the two militant commanders and the peace deal  had helped Pakistan’s military focus on Mehsud. Now, noted the BBC’s Syed Shoaib Hasan the end of the agreement “leaves the army facing a near impossible task – no one has ever defeated a combined insurgency in the Waziristan area.” The Pakistani government on Tuesday sought to quell such speculation, claiming the peace deal had been signed with the tribal elders and not with Taliban militants. In an interview with BBC World Radio yesterday, Interior Minister Rehman Malik further insisted that countering Bahadur’s group would not be “that difficult,” affirming, “we will take over” [the Waziristan area].

Pakistan’s ongoing military offensive has garnered a continuous stream of news headlines. However, given that journalists have largely been denied access to the frontline, media reports are often a regurgitation of contradictory information provided by both military and militant spokesmen. The difficulty is always extracting the “truth” from what both sides want us to believe. For example, noted the NY Times, “For the past month and a half, the Pakistani military has claimed success in retaking the Swat Valley from the Taliban, clawing back its own territory from insurgents who only a short time ago were extending their reach toward the heartland of the country.”

However, the news agency on June 28 offered a rare glimpse into Swat’s aftermath, noting, “…from a helicopter flying low over the valley last week, the low-rise buildings of Mingora…now deserted and under a 24-hour curfew, appeared unscathed. In the surrounding countryside, farmers had harvested wheat and red onions on their unscarred land.” The NYT added, “All that is testament to the fact that the Taliban mostly melted away without a major fight, possibly to return when the military withdraws or to fight elsewhere, military analysts say.”

This snapshot of Swat, coupled with the fact that the military has failed to kill or capture a top Taliban commander, makes the idea of “success” all the more abstract, and the new push into “the far more treacherous terrain” of South Waziristan worrisome. Are we essentially going down the same inconclusive path of military offensives past? Rehman Malik, in his talk with BBC World Radio, reassured the skeptics by simply noting, “measures have been taken to prevent these militants from regrouping,” (he would not specify the measures so as not to compromise the secrecy of the mission).

This is not to say the military has not made gains in this new offensive. In fact, in the perception management side of the war, the Pakistani Army has indicated a new resolve in countering militancy, most interestingly demonstrated by the names of these military offensives. In a recent study by Shuja Nawaz entitled, FATA – A Most Dangerous Place, he wrote, “In the Swat district, the first operation by the regular army was named Operation Mountain Viper, not exactly a name that inspired participants or local residents or drew them into the task for fighting Islamist militants…” However, the new commander of the troops in Swat, Maj. Gen. Janjua in 2007 “launched a fresh operation named Rah-e-Haq or the Path to Truth (i.e., the true Islamic faith), aimed at wresting the Islamic ground from the insurgents by claiming to act in the name of the true Islam.”

The army’s recent offensive titles indicate a further evolution of this trend. On May 16, 2009, the military announced that Operation Rah-e-Haq (4) in Malakand would be renamed Operation Rah-e-Rast, or the Path to Righteousness. Most recently, Rah-e-Nijaat, or the Path to Salvation, was attached to the military’s operation in South Waziristan. Last week, COAS Gen. Ashfaq Kayani told reporters, “We are conducting this operation to bring misguided people back on the right path…They are not fighting for Islam. Pakistan was created in the name of Islam and we know how to protect it.”

What seems to be occurring therefore, is an effort on the military’s part to reframe the war in a language digestible by the public. They are challenging the convoluted interpretations of Islam and Sharia espoused by these Taliban-linked militants, and are no longer allowing them to hijack and leverage this space. However, while certainly a part of unconventional warfare, winning will still take more than just good PR. As Shuja Nawaz noted, “Troops, training, and equipment are one part of a two-part approach to counterinsurgency. The other, and some might say more important part is the underlying political dynamic and governance, without which military actions will fail to gain traction or produce a lasting solution.” In our case, it means we once again concede to the militants.

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