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Pakistan has declared its three-month anti-Taliban offensive in the Swat Valley a success, claiming to have killed more than 1,800 militants. But on Wednesday US special representative for Pakistan and Afghanistan Richard Holbrooke cast doubt on whether the push had actually achieved its goal: defeating the Taliban.
Pakistan launched the offensive in late April, after the Taliban flouted a peace deal signed in February and took control of the area, setting off alarm bells in Washington. Mr. Holbrooke's remarks were a rare expression of doubt over Swat by a member of the Obama administration, which has praised Pakistan's effort. They indicate a growing sense of worry that rather than crushing the Taliban, the offensive may have simple pushed the fighters underground.
"We don't know exactly to what extent the Pakistani Army dispersed or destroyed the enemy," Holbrooke told reporters on Wednesday, after returning from Pakistan and Afghanistan, according to Reuters. "The test of this operation is, of course, when the refugees return. Can they go home? Are they safe? And we're just going to have to wait and see."
Most of the Swat Taliban's top commanders, including leader Mullah Fazlullah, have "escaped the Pakistani government's operation," reports the Long War Journal, a blog that follows Pakistan, citing a Taliban spokesman.
At the same time, large numbers of the two million refugees who fled the fighting in Swat are making their way home, reports the Financial Times. Government figures say as many as 40 percent of those internally displaced by the fighting may be returning.
Also according to the Financial Times, Pakistani security officials say Taliban members in Swat may have gone into hiding among the civilian population and may continue to fight. That puts everyone from schoolgirls to truck drivers on NATO supply routes in danger, reports the newspaper.
Security forces acknowledge the danger of the Taliban melting away into the local population and staging guerrilla attacks. Military experts say it is difficult to identify who belongs to the ranks of the Taliban and what their strategic goals may be.
"The Taliban may not want to seize territory but simply to keep the government, the military and common people surrounded by fear," said a senior security official. "Their agenda is going to be to keep on reminding us they are a powerful force."
Taliban militants have also continued to attack supply convoys for Nato troops in Afghanistan. "As you can see, the Taliban are searching for any weak point they can find," said the senior security official.
Pakistan's lingering Taliban problem helped win it the dubious honor of the world's 10th most failed state in Foreign Policy magazine's 2009 Failed State Index. In its citation, Foreign Policy says the situation in Pakistan has "deteriorated" over the last 18 months, and voices concern that its internally displaced population is now under the care of "an increasingly fragile government."
The Taliban's tenacity has been on full display in the past 24 hours, which have seen an uptick in violence, reports Agence France-Presse. On Wednesday, more than 50 Taliban attacked and killed pro-Western militia leader, Khalilur Rehman, in his home in Shangla district, reports the news service. Shangla borders the location of the recent offensive but until Wednesday had seen little fighting itself.
Pakistani officials also say troops have killed four militants since Tuesday and arrested 21 others suspected of militant activity.