Pakistan steps up efforts against Taliban – but at what cost?

Some 501,000 Pakistanis have fled the fighting in Swat and nearby areas as the Army dropped commandos in by helicopter.

LAHORE, PAKISTAN – Pakistan’s recent gains against Taliban fighters in the northwest could soon be tempered by a backlash against the human cost of the operation, according to some analysts.

On Tuesday, Pakistani commandos were dropped by helicopter into the Swat Valley as the Army continued to step up its efforts there and in neighboring areas against an estimated 4,000 militants. According to military spokesman Major General Athar Abbas, 751 militants have so far been killed while 29 security officials have been killed in the present military operation, codenamed Raah-e-Haq ("The Righteous Path"). The figures could not be independently verified.

Rising refugee crisis

Some 501,000 people have fled from the fighting, according to United Nations estimates. Local officials say the total number of displaced people in the northwest, including those who fled fighting in Bajaur last year, has reached 1.3 million – the largest internal migration in Pakistan since its creation in 1947, according to the government. (Read the Monitor’s report from the camps here.)

Broad-based Pakistani public support for the military option may give way to opposition should the government find itself unprepared to assist the internal refugees, says Rahimullah Yusufzai, Peshawar bureau chief of The News, a leading English-daily in the country.

“The way people were ordered to leave their homes, the curfews they faced, the absence of transport, the high bus fares, all of this is building up and support is diminishing,” he says.

'Were no lessons learned...?'

An editorial in Tuesday’s Dawn, another English daily newspaper, castigates the government for not learning its lessons from other mass migrations in recent history.

“Just in October 2005 authorities were faced with a similar massive displacement after the earthquake in northern Pakistan. Were no lessons learned from that experience? And even before that, Pakistan has a long history of dealing with refugees from conflict in Afghanistan. Did no one study what was done right and what went wrong in dealing with the Afghans?”

Conditions in refugee camps are “generally poor, unhygienic, and often cramped” according to Mr Yusufzai, who visited camps in Peshawar Monday. “Tents are so close together that it’s difficult to walk and you will fall over while trying to go to the toilet,” he adds.

Gen. (ret.) Talat Masood, a defense analyst, says the operation is “generally going well.” “Obviously the militants could not match the Army in a direct conflict,” he says.

But to hold on to its gains, he continues, the government will need to improve infrastructure in the affected areas, such as health care, schooling, and a strong police presence. The post-conflict period is “the most crucial phase,” he says.

Yusufzai doesn’t believe that things are going as well as the Army says. “There is no independent verification of casualty figures,” he says. On a trip to Buner on Monday, “not one person we spoke to said they actually saw Taliban bodies. They did, however, tell us stories of how their families were killed by Army shelling while fleeing the area.”

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