Even as he remains publicly embroiled with the secular opposition, Pakistan's Gen. Pervez Musharraf's real war with militants is heating up – and far from public view. The outcome is pivotal to Pakistan's longer struggle with militancy.
This week, Pakistan's Army sent 15,000 ground troops into Swat, a scenic valley in the North West Frontier Province. Although a settled area barely 100 miles from the urbane capital, Islamabad, Swat is the stronghold of a Taliban-like extremist group boasting about 5,000 fighters.
At least 15 militants were reported killed since troops landed on Sunday, according to Agence France-Presse:
"The militants suffered heavy losses and their casualties were numerous," [local government spokesman Amjad] Iqbal said as government forces tried to dislodge the militants from bases in the district of Kabal and the nearby Shangla hills.
He said two rebel commanders loyal to hardline cleric Maulana Fazlullah -- who wants to introduce Islamic Sharia law in the region and preaches holy war against the government -- were killed.
Fighting in Swat has been escalating for weeks. But the skirmishes have ended in humiliating defeats for the Army, mostly because 3,000 paramilitaries – rather than actual soldiers – were sent to do the fighting. Many have surrendered without putting up a fight or have been captured and publicly executed.
As the Financial Times highlighted in early November, those defeats exposed a troubled spot in Pakistan's war on terrorism:
Western diplomats say the military setbacks illustrate how Gen Musharraf's protracted struggle to hold on to power is proving a costly distraction from the fight against pro-Taliban insurgents. "It has been very difficult to get his attention for quite some time," says one.
Moreover, the pattern of mass surrenders is a worrying indication of a serious malaise in a US-funded fighting force that is of critical importance to the west's ability to prosecute the war in Afghanistan. While the 92,000 Pakistani troops deployed along the Afghan border may not be mutinous, their will to fight against fellow-Muslims in the tribal areas, and now also in much of northern Pakistan, is ever more in question.
This week may mark a turning point. It is the first time that bona fide Army boots have been put on the ground. The move was quickly welcomed in editorials.
The Daily Times, an English-language daily in Pakistan, seemed to suggest that it was high time for such action:
Finally the army has begun its ground offensive in Swat after days of sniping at the Al Qaeda militants from its helicopter gunships, killing 35 on the first day.
This is a change from the humiliating reversals which the militants inflicted on the paramilitary personnel earlier on…
The News, another influential English-language daily, called on the government to exhibit a policy of greater resolve:
…[I]t is necessary to show that the state is determined to enforce its writ. This can be done by closing down the illegal radio stations that fuel passions and hatred, refusing to reach deals with militants and, at the same time, drawing ordinary people into the battle against extremists by offering them the benefits that a benevolent, caring state must be able to provide.
Washington is closely watching the developments as well, according to the Los Angeles Times.
U.S. officials are closely monitoring the situation in the northwestern district of Swat, a picturesque former princely state. Islamic militants, employing tactics used in the tribal borderlands, have overrun villages here, beheading security personnel and imposing their own harsh brand of Islamic law.
Western military observers consider the confrontation a pivotal one, possibly presaging a much wider push by Pakistani and foreign militants out of the largely lawless tribal belt along the Afghanistan border and into so-called settled areas, where Pakistan's federal government is supposed to have authority.
Bloggers on Pakistan welcomed the troop deployment, but wondered about its timing.
Munaeem, a Canadian blogger of Pakistani origin who follows Pakistani affairs, writes:
…[T]he question is why the government did not take action when [Fazlullah] started his criminal activities. They should also shake up the local administration. According to reports, they are corrupt and tyrant. Their tyranny and corruption have made Maulana Fazlullah popular.
Aadil, commenting on another blog about Pakistani affairs, sees a sinister connection between this week's operation and Musharraf's reelection bid:
To many, it is a conscious effort on part of the regime to make the situation worse at a point of time when general elections are just around the corner. It could be a ploy to postpone the general elections and buy some more time for political manouvering [sic] on part of Mr. Musharraf plus it could be a signal to the US of America that the war is on and that he still could play an important role in their so called war against terror.
The Daily Times warned:
The Pakistan army, as it operates in Swat, must recognise that the present operation is just the opening of a larger battlefront.