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: