Pakistani Army advances slowly through Swat
The Pakistani military is still facing tough resistance from Taliban forces in Swat and Buner as the operation in the Malakand Division enters its fourth week.
The operation, known as Rah-e-Haq 4, is the military's fourth attempt to clear the Taliban from the Swat region since the fall of 2007. The prior operations failed to eject the Taliban and led to peace deals that put the Taliban in control of the district.
The Pakistani Army has thrown more than 15,000 troops into the fight against an estimated 5,000 to 7,000 Taliban fighters in Swat. According to military reports, the number of Taliban fighters killed is fast approaching 1,200.
But US military and intelligence officials tracking the operation described the Taliban body count as "wildly exaggerated" and "fantastic." The Pakistani Army is mixing civilian and Taliban casualties, and the real number of Taliban killed is thought to be between 300 and 500, a senior US military intelligence official told The Long War Journal.
In Swat, the Pakistani Army is still attempting to reach main city of Mingora. The military has launched a three-pronged offensive with the aim of converging on the city.
Despite Army claims last week that Mingora was surrounded by Pakistani troops, recent reports indicate the Army is still engaged in heavy fighting in the towns and villages outside the city. The Taliban has mined the roads and is conducting complex ambushes, according to reports.
The Army is reported to be clearing the towns of Kanju and Matta. Yesterday one officer and one soldier were reported killed during fighting in Matta, while 14 Taliban fighters and two soldiers were killed outside of Kanju.
Interior Minister Rehman Malik claimed the Khawazakhela region in Swat has been cleared of Taliban fighters.
The military is still attempting to secure the Peochar Valley, the headquarters of the Swat Taliban. Newly trained commandos from Pakistan's paramilitary Frontier Corps were air-assaulted into Peochar more than a week ago, and are still engaged in heavy fighting. Two Taliban have been reported killed in the operation.
An unconfirmed report in The News indicates that four commandos from Pakistan's elite Special Service Group, including a captain named Najam Riaz, were captured in Swat and then killed by the Taliban as they attempted to escape. The military has not reported any SSG commandos as killed or captured during the operation.
As for the neighboring district of Buner, Malik claimed yesterday the district has been fully cleared and encouraged civilians to return to their homes. "Buner and Dir are under our control, and the operation-affected people can return to their areas, and we shall provide them full security," Malik said.
Military reports on the situations in Dir and Buner contradict Malik's claim, however.
Major General Athar Abbas, the chief spokesman for the military, reported that the town of Pir Baba in Buner is still contested, and Sultanwas was just cleared today. He reported that heavy fighting in Sultanwas today resulted in the deaths of 80 Taliban fighters and one soldier, and said the town was cleared of Taliban fighters.
"Sultanwas was the main stronghold of terrorist-miscreants in Buner, where they have made concrete underground bunkers and ammunition dumps," Abbas said in a press briefing.
With regard to the district of Dir, the military stated the town of Madain will be cleared within three days. The military claimed Dir was cleared one day after the operation began on April 26, and has said Madain was secured several times since then. In the latest round of fighting in Dir, five Taliban fighters are reported to have been killed.
The military said 250 Taliban fighters and 30 Pakistani troops have been killed during fighting in Dir since the operation began.
Background on the Malakand Accord and fighting in Swat
The fighting in Swat, Dir, Buner, and Shangla broke out after a peace agreement with the Taliban failed. The agreement, known as the Malakand Accord, placed the Malakand Division and the district of Kohistan under the control of the Taliban. The Malakand Division is comprised of the districts of Malakand, Swat, Shangla, Buner, Dir, and Chitral. The Malakand Division and the neighboring Kohistan district together encompass nearly one-third of the Northwest Frontier Province.
The government signed the Malakand Accord with Taliban front man Sufi Mohammed, Fazlullah's father-in-law, on February 16 after two years of fighting that put the Taliban in control of the district. During those two years, the military was defeated three separate times while attempting to wrest control from the Taliban. Each defeat put the Taliban in greater control of the district.
The peace agreement called for the end of military operations in Swat, the end of Taliban operations, and the imposition of sharia, or Islamic law, in the Malakand Division.
But the Taliban violated the agreement immediately after signing it, and proceeded to attack security forces and conduct armed patrols. The military remained silent while the government approved the Taliban's demand for sharia throughout Malakand.
The government ordered a military offensive in Dir and Buner after enormous pressure from the US and other Western governments to stem the Taliban tide pushing toward central Pakistan. The Taliban advanced from Swat into Buner in early April and took over the district in eight days. The move into Buner has put the Taliban within 60 miles of Islamabad and close to several nuclear facilities and the vital Tarbela Dam. The Taliban also have moved into Mansehra and established bases and a training camp in the region.
Pakistani government and military officials have dismissed the Taliban threat to Islamabad and the country's nuclear facilities, but at the end of April, the local Islamabad government ordered troops to deploy in the Margala hills just north of the city to block a Taliban advance, while the Haripur government beefed up security at the Tarbela Dam.