After five days of heavy fighting between the Pakistani military and Taliban forces in the country's Northwest Frontier Province, the first glimpse of a possible cease-fire appeared Friday following the resumption of talks between the provincial government and Sufi Mohammad, the spiritual leader of the Swat Valley Taliban.
Pakistan's progress in its battle against the Islamist insurgency, however, may hinge upon the government's willingness to send the Army into the Taliban stronghold of Swat to complete the job, according to some analysts.
"If they are serious, they will have to go back into Swat. Is this going to be another case where they push them back – allow them to regroup later and reemerge at a different point – or will they go on to eliminate them?" asks Ahmed Rashid, author of "Descent into Chaos: The United States and the Failure of Nation Building in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia."
The Taliban, which has held the Swat Valley since 2005, first entered the districts of Buner and Lower Dir, some 62 miles northwest of Islamabad, at the beginning of April, creating panic within Pakistani civil society, the government, and abroad. The alarming rate of Taliban expansion led US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to declare that the nuclear-armed state was becoming a "mortal threat" to the world. A counter-attack by the military began last Sunday.
On Friday, military spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas said that 55 to 60 militants had been killed in the fighting in 24 hours, bringing the militant death toll over the course of the operation to more than 100. He said that two security personnel had also been killed. Earlier in the day, 10 paramilitary personnel were also reported kidnapped from Buner.
The developments have mostly been met with optimism. According to Talat Hussain, a senior journalist with the Aaj TV network, a Pakistani news channel, "So far, what we have seen leads us to believe it is for real," adding that the Army has been "successful in casting a net around Buner while the response in Dir was both swift and deadly.
"The Taliban have been put on notice - nobody will be allowed to impose their will on others. Threats to life and liberty will be [met] by force."
Ismail Khan, the Peshawar bureau chief of Dawn, a leading English-language daily, adds: "It appears to be a more determined effort by the Army. There's a greater sense of urgency – it seems to be more targeted and focused, and they aren't taking prisoners, which is a significant break from the past."
The US has pushed Pakistan to battle the Taliban. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, in testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Thursday, praised Pakistan for the offensive and said the Taliban had overreached in their attempt to control Buner and Dir. He also urged lawmakers to approve the president's war-spending request, which includes $400 million to help Pakistan fight the Taliban, the first installment of a five-year, $3 billion plan.
A defining facet of the present military operation against the Taliban has been the political consensus that was achieved between the ruling Pakistan People's Party and the opposition PML-N of Nawaz Sharif. This has given the military the legitimacy it lacked during previous military strikes, according to Christine Fair, a South Asia expert at RAND Corp.
But, she says, the basic issue of what the government can do to hold an area after recapturing it remains unsolved.
"This is not a stable game – how many times does the Army go in and win and then later retreat?" she asks, adding that the government has a poor track record of looking after progovernment elements who are later left to the mercy of the Taliban.
The provincial government of the North West Frontier Province (NWFP), for its part, is still hoping to hold on to a peace deal with the Taliban in Malakand District, of which Swat, Lower Dir, and Buner are a part. In the deal, struck in February, the government agreed to accept sharia, or Islamic law, in the region – a longstanding demand of the militants – in exchange for a cease-fire.
Government officials held a 30-minute meeting with Sufi Mohammad in the town of Timergara on Friday for the first time since talks were suspended following the launch of the military operation.
"Everything is being done to end militancy. Everything is being done for peace," Mian Iftikhar Hussain, information minister of the NWFP, told reporters after the meeting. Haji Adeel, a senior vice president of the ruling Awami National Party, later told the Monitor that the government would be ready to open Dar-ul-Qaza (sharia) appellate courts within 24 hours.
"If the militants still continue to hold arms and patrol after that, Sufi Mohammad has assured us that they will be taken as outcasts and no funeral prayers will be held for them if they are killed," says Mr. Adeel.
Much now depends on how well Sufi Mohammad is able to rein in the militants, according to Mr. Khan. "We have to wait and see whether the new courts are acceptable to Sufi Mohammad, and whether Sufi will be inclined to lean on the Taliban to lay down arms – and if he does, whether they listen to him," he says.
A cease-fire would also raise the question of whether the government would give amnesty to Taliban fighters. "I see reprisal attacks against Taliban once they lay down their arms – in line with the Pashtunwali [the honor code of Pashtuns]," says Khan.
If peace is finally established, the government must turn its attention to good governance and policing if it wishes to hold on to its gains, says Talat Hussain. "Next comes the pressing need of governance: You need to build your police stations, reform your courts, give compensation to victims. These are the questions we must be concerned with."
On the question of whether an assault on Swat is likely, Talat Hussain believes all the chess pieces are in place. "[The Taliban] have been put on notice – the Army has practically surrounded the Swat Valley. I would be surprised if the battle is not taken into the heart of Swat. If they resist, they will feel the full force of the Army; if they are willing to lay down arms, there will be less violence."