If you were to peripherally read the media headlines in the last few weeks, you may believe one or more of the following: 1. Pakistan is or will become a failed state, 2. The Taliban is winning the war against the military, and 3. The militants’ influence is slowly seeping into the country’s urban areas. It is always easier to accept negative news at face value, because, let’s face it – that’s what sells. But what is really going on?
Currently, the Pakistani military is engaged in an offensive against militants in Buner district, the area just 70 miles from the capital where Taliban fighters consolidated control late last month. According to CNN, security forces will likely advance to Swat in the coming days. The military’s immediate goal though is to clear Taliban militants from Pir Baba, an important religious shrine in Buner. However, according to the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), the military have accused the Taliban of “holding 2,000 villagers as human shields” to halt the military’s onslaught into the area. BBC’s correspondent says they have not yet verified this claim.
According to the BBC, security forces are fighting against the Taliban in four of Buner’s six sub-districts – militants are in control of the remaining two districts. A resident in Buner told Reuters, “There’s been heavy firing going on since morning. It is very scary. Troops are using heavy artillery and gunships.” GEO Television reported Monday that seven militants “including an important commander Afsar Hameed” were killed in today’s offensive and Dawn reported that 80 militants [as of Sunday] have been killed in the Buner military operation. However, reported the BBC’s Syed Shoaib Hassan, although security forces appear to have the upper hand, “the militants are resisting fiercely and it may be sometime before the forces can take complete control of Buner.”
In an interview with CNN yesterday, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates told Fareed Zakaria that Pakistan “has started regaining control of parts of NWFP that were recently taken over by the Taliban.” However, although the Defense Secretary noted, “I think the movement of the Taliban so close to Islamabad was a real wake-up call for them,” Zakaria, in a Newsweek commentary today, wrote, “Even now, after allowing the Taliban to get within 60 miles of the capital, the Pakistani military has deployed only a few thousand troops to confront them, leaving the bulk of its million-man Army in the east, presumably in case India suddenly invades. And when the Army does attack the Taliban, as it did a couple of years ago in the same Swat Valley, it bombs, declares victory and withdraws—and the jihadists return.”
Haider Mullick, however, presented a different and more positive perspective in his Newsweek article, “Where Pakistan is Winning.” According to Mullick, the situation is not as dire as it seems, and, while the military is barely holding off militants in some places, “in others it has recently notched up a string of surprising successes—victories that offer a way forward for the nation as a whole.” Ground Zero for this turnaround, he wrote, is Bajaur, which was until recently a militant stronghold. Although the military’s immediate response was “disastrous,” with a policy of out-terrorizing the terrorists, ultimately alienating the population, General Khan, who took over last fall, “realized he needed a new approach, one that emphasized holding and building areas after freeing them of Taliban gunmen.” Mullick wrote,
He began eating and bunking with his men to improve morale, and seeking the counsel of his officers—not a common practice in the hierarchical Pakistani military—on how best to engage the enemy and attract local support. In August 2008 he launched Operation Shirdil (“lion heart”), similar to the U.S. “surge” strategy in Iraq. Khan encouraged his troops to work with local tribes, shrewdly dividing pro-Taliban from pro-government elements, and, to gain legitimacy, backed tribal militias and sought the acquiescence of local jirgas (tribal councils).
One officer told Mullick,”We finally learned the value of killing none and producing a thousand friendly tribesmen that do the killing for you.” The relative success of Gen. Khan’s Bajaur approach is now being replicated elsewhere in Pakistan. In Swat, the Army is marching in Bajaur veterans, and one senior military officer noted, “We’re seeing troops that have tasted success. They know what victory should look like.” However, added the author, “The Bajaur formula is not guaranteed to work elsewhere: more urbanized Pashtuns, for example, may prove less willing to cooperate than their tribal cousins because of the reduced clout of jirgas in populous areas. The Pakistani military has also seen its advances rolled back before.”
At this time, we can never be truly certain of who is winning, particularly since both sides, the military and the militants, are not just fighting a tangible offensive, but are also trying win a war of perceptions. As the numerous media reports roll in, it is important to look beyond the headlines and remember what is realistic. According to Dawn‘s Cyril Almeida, we do know that the rise of militancy is a more dangerous problem than it was five, six, or even seven years ago. However, he noted, “Even if they number in the tens of thousands, the militants today can’t really overrun the country and knock over the state. What they can do though is push us into a low-level equilibrium, where violence is endemic, security scarce, the economy is in the doldrums and quality of life is on the wane.” That in itself is obviously a very dangerous development.
So what do we need to do? As I have stated again and again, the government must adopt a nationwide counterinsurgency strategy to bolster the military’s offensive on the ground. Given that the Taliban has a relatively sophisticated communications apparatus, their propaganda must be matched and countered by a national strategic communications strategy, ultimately selling the war to the people and swaying the masses further against these militants. Pakistan’s police forces and Frontier Corps must also be better trained and bolstered. The CS Monitor cited RAND’s Christine Fair who asserted, “We have to invest in the police…The police are thoroughly exposed, they are poorly equipped, they are outgunned, they are undermanned, they are poorly trained, and they are sitting ducks for the insurgents.” These forces need financial and security assurances – for themselves and for their families.
The youth’s response to this volatile security situation has been especially refreshing. On Saturday, Dawn’s Nosheen Abbas wrote, “The youth of Islamabad is not sitting idle in the face of growing religious extremism and Talibanization in some areas of Pakistan. Even if individually some are trying to combat ‘Talibanisation’ in a manner they deem fit; and some are even finding creative avenues.” Abbas Saleem Khan, who organized a protest in Islamabad against the Taliban, told her, “By not joining in, you are literally giving the Taliban a free pass to allow them to walk into your streets and homes and tell you how to conduct your daily affairs. The heart of the matter is that we will stand up against the Taliban and steer this country towards the vision it was created for.” Nosheen Abbas also cited Amna Mawaz, a university student, who plans to raise awareness through theater, noting, “I figured after attending protests and seminars that no one will listen to you if you give a lecture but rather through something entertaining like theater. I think if you keep it light and yet have a meaning one can spread awareness about extremism.” On social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, young Pakistanis have established groups, organized rallies, and mobilized others to speak out against extremism.
So, get involved in the debate. And, if you need musical motivation, below is a song by Zameer called, “Mind Over Murder.” Zameer, a Pakistani-Canadian, wrote the song to condemn extremism. He told PakMusic, “An extreme belief can create very tangible and devastating results for the innocent…This song stems from a desire on my part to speak out against the senseless loss of life that terrorist acts result in.”