Pakistan can clear Taliban territory, but can it hold it?
The 1.5 million displaced Pakistanis displaced are waiting in squalid camps
to go home. The US offered $110 million in new aid on Tuesday.
Slem Khan, Pakistan
Worried about his crops and property, and hearing that the curfew had been lifted, Shamsul Qamar and his son paid $5 for a ride back home to Pakistan's Buner district this morning. When they arrived they heard explosions as government aircraft fired on the Taliban, who are fighting to maintain control of the area. Pakistani security forces promptly told them to turn around.Skip to next paragraph
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Now he's back where he started at a crossroads three miles outside Buner, watching families piled on trucks make the same hopeful journey home.
"Those families who are going back, they will return again," says Mr. Qamar. "I will go back only when there is complete peace, when the security forces have complete control, and when there is law and order with a local administration and police."
That's a tall order, but that's precisely the task facing the government if it hopes to not just finish this battle with the Taliban, but win the peace. Pakistan is trying to wrest control of Buner from the Taliban, who seized the district – just 60 miles from the capital, Islamabad – last month. But the military Pakistan has a poor track record of holding cleared territory, leaving many experts and refugees skeptical about the long-term gains from this operation.
"The Army can clear if by clearing it means utter devastation, but it certainly doesn't seem able to hold," says Christine Fair, an analyst with RAND Corporation in Washington. "Partly they have a doctrinal problem. They don't have a lot of institutions you'd expect them to have, because they are not a counterinsurgency military."
To assist Pakistan in this effort, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton announced Tuesday that the US would provide $100 million in humanitarian aid and that the US Defense Department would give another $10 million in unspecified assistance.
“Providing this assistance is not only the right thing to do but we believe it is essential to global security and the security of the United States and we are prepared to do more as the situation demands,” Ms. Clinton told
reporters at the White House.
A bridge between civilians and the military
Pakistan does have some institutions valuable for this transition, however. One is the district coordination officer, or DCO, who acts as a bridge between military and civilian administration in a given region. It's a role that gained more power under the former military dictatorship of President Pervez Musharraf.
The DCO for Buner, Yahya Akhunzada, says he has been meeting nearly every day with the military to coordinate the return of people, police, and administration to cleared areas. Police are starting to return to Daggar and Totalai, two regions in lower Buner. Within a week, 200 police will be sent from the provincial capital of Peshawar as reinforcements, allowing routine policing to restart in these areas.
It's not a job for the faint-hearted.
"The morale of the police is low," says Mr. Akhunzada. When Taliban come to an area, they target the police first. That makes his police fearful to return in case "something wrong happens and the militants are not damaged a lot."
And until the police have regained their footing, it's unlikely judges will return to their courts, teachers to their classrooms, and residents such as Qamar to their homes.
Backstopping the police is where a good paramilitary force ought to step in to relieve the Army – and where Pakistan admits it has a problem.