Thanks to Kashif Aziz over at Chowrangi, I now subscribe to Google news alerts on Pakistan, which has led to a continuous stream of breaking news headlines in my inbox throughout day. Looking back on Monday’s major stories, I found the impressive mix of headlines – particularly those related to the military offensive – to be thought-provoking:
- “Al Qaeda Seen as Shaken in Pakistan.” The story, featured on the front page of Monday’s Washington Post, cited U.S. military and intelligence officials who said, “Drone-launched U.S. missile attacks and Pakistan’s ongoing military offensive in and around the Swat Valley have unsettled Al Qaeda and undermined its relative invulnerability in Pakistani mountain sanctuaries.” The dual disruption, reported the news agency, offers a new sense of possibility and has sparked some optimism. A senior military official told the Post the Pakistani military offensive against the Taliban poses a “dilemma” for AQ, since “They’re asking themselves, are we going to contest the Taliban losses.” He predicted that AQ will “have to make a move” and undertake more open communication on cellphones and computers, which will subsequently make them more visible.
- “Pakistan Marches On in Bastion of Taliban.” Monday’s NY Times‘ piece that accompanied the aforementioned headline read, “For the past month, the military has been pressing an offensive against Taliban militants…On Sunday, a day after the military reported that it had taken the valley’s biggest city, Mingora, from the Taliban, Pakistani officials said the campaign could be over in a matter of days.” Despite this rather optimistic assertion, Times reporters noted, “But the areas have been largely off limits to reporters, and it has been impossible to corroborate assertions by the military, which have been overly optimistic in the past.” In fact, the International Committee of the Red Cross [ICRC] only gained access to the area on Friday, and described the dire humanitarian reality for those who were left behind in Swat.
- Not to be outdone, the headline of an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal Tuesday read, “A Victory in Pakistan.” The op-ed also discussed the capture of Mingora this past Saturday, noting, “In symbolic and strategic terms, the fall of Mingora on Saturday marks a potential turning point for Pakistan, and perhaps for the fight against Al Qaeda. Three weeks after launching its counteroffensive against the Taliban, Pakistan’s military took back the largest city in the Swat Valley and is now pushing further against Islamist insurgents…”
Later on Monday, a dramatic development in Pakistan garnered further headlines. According to news agencies, Taliban militants kidnapped students, teachers, and relatives traveling in a convoy in North Waziristan. However, media outlets differed in just how many people were kidnapped, a discrepancy reflected in their headlines. Although Dawn‘s headline read, “Taliban Kidnap Over 500 College Cadet Students,” other news agencies included more ambiguous details in their titles, from the Wall Street Journal‘s “Busloads of Students Abducted in Pakistan,” to the BBC News‘ “Pakistan Student Convoy ‘Missing.‘” Following reports the Pakistani Army “rescued” or “recovered” all who were kidnapped, news agencies confirm that 80 teachers and students were freed.
The headlines featured above coupled with those surrounding the North Waziristan development are indicative of just how little we really know about the security situation. If we were to take headlines at face value without reading the accompanying stories, we may draw fairly superficial conclusions. The titles of the first set of articles noted above all seem to corroborate the military’s recent set of statements, that we are winning this war and the offensive will be over soon. For an already conflict-fatigued nation, one reeling from devastating humanitarian ramifications, such news is welcome.
However, the fact that dozens of people could be so easily kidnapped by Taliban militants should be the nagging hole in this argument. How can the end of this campaign be days away given these circumstances? Moreover, isn’t it too soon to claim victory? Although I am a supporter of the Pakistan Army’s efforts, I also do not want premature optimism to cloud our judgment of what’s at stake in the long-run. We cannot allow a repeat of the past, when the Taliban’s influence rose despite military campaigns. As Kamran Shafi in his Dawn op-ed noted on Tuesday, “Transparency, gentlemen, complete transparency, please. And perhaps a little introspection to see what went wrong and who let the matter fester until it became the monster it has become?” Victory is not impossible, it’s just not that easy.