Fighting, peace talks resume in Swat; military demoralized
The fighting between the Pakistani military and the Taliban is back on after the latest cease-fire in the settled district of Swat fell through. The Taliban, lead by radical cleric Mauluna Qazi Fazlullah, attacked Pakistani military and police positions throughout Swat on Tuesday and Wednesday, prompting the Pakistani military to return fire with helicopter gunships.
The Taliban responded by firing at the helicopters. "The militants twice attacked the choppers in mid year with rockets, causing no damage," the Associated Press of Pakistan, a government news agency, reported. "[The Taliban] blew up boundary wall of the Mingora Police Lines."
The military claimed 15 to 18 Taliban were killed in the latest round of fighting. Over 50 Pakistani soldiers and 70 Taliban fighters have been killed since fighting started last week.
Despite the repeated attacks on government forces, and the beheadings of 13 soldiers and police, the government is eager to negotiate, Syed Saleem Shahzad reports. "Senator Gul Naseeb, a senior leader of the religious party Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F), told Adnkronos International that a high-ranking delegation was to meet militant leader, and pro-Taliban cleric, Mullah Fazlullah, at a secret location on Wednesday evening."
Red agencies/ districts controlled by the Taliban; purple is defacto control; yellow is under threat.
"I spoke to the governor and the chief minister [of NWFP] this afternoon and sought some guarantees," the Senator told Shahzad. "Now I will speak to Mullah Fazlullah along with some senior Jamiat-i-Ulema Islam leaders including the former chief minister of the province, Akram Khan Durrani."
As the government seeks to cut a new deal with the Taliban in Swat, the Pakistani military is quickly becoming a demoralized force, the Times of India reported, based on an assessment made by Indian intelligence. Casualties are higher than reported, and troops are beginning to desert.
"These [Taliban] outfits were once nurtured by ISI [Pakistani's Inter Services Intelligence], and now the chickens are coming home to roost. Our estimates show around 1,000 Pakistani soldiers have been killed in the fighting. Casualties in 'Operation Al Mizan' in North Waziristan have been particularly high," said an official.
"As per our intelligence inputs, Pakistani officers are jostling with low morale among their troops. The abductions and killings of soldiers by militants have only added to the disenchantment among troops, which is being reflected in a large number of desertions, suicides and AWOL (absent without leave) cases," he added.
With the heavy operational commitment adversely affecting Pakistani Army's rotation schedule, the majority of such cases are being reported from FATA and NWFP. Between just October 11 and 16, for instance, 160 desertion cases were reported from these areas.
In fact, reports of soldiers even refusing to obey orders have begun to emerge from Waziristan now, in what is being seen as a blow to the otherwise well-disciplined Pakistani Army.
Reports from Swat indicate the morale problem is not limited to the tribal agencies of North and South Waziristan. The BBC reported the military and police forces in the town of Kabal are holed up in a police compound "where they have set up heavy barricades to guard against possible militant attacks." The Taliban man checkpoints just 50 yards from the police station, move freely, and taunt the soldiers.
"Neither the military nor the police have any patrolling schedules, increasing the sense of insecurity among government troops," the BBC reported. "People of the area offer us no protection, so we have called in the FC," said the police inspector.
Shahzad reported that a television broadcast from Swat showed the local population "hostile to the Pakistani military and instead showing their support for local rebels, whom they called Mujahideen (holy warrior)."
"The television showed footage of local people collecting money for the militants," Shahzad noted. "The report claimed that in three hours 1.5 million Pakistani rupees or 24,500 US dollars was collected."
See The Fall of the Northwest Frontier Province for the full history of the rise of the Taliban and al Qaeda in Pakistan's tribal regions and beyond.