Click map for full view. Taliban presence, by district and tribal agency, in the Swat region. Information on Taliban presence obtained from open source and derived by The Long War Journal based on the presence of Taliban shadow governments, levels of fighting, and reports from the region. Map created by Bill Raymond for The Long War Journal. Last updated: May 12, 2009.
The Pakistani Army recently stated it is in control of the town of Peochar, a Taliban stronghold and headquarters in the Swat Valley, and the military also claims to have “achieved considerable success” in Swat, Dir, Buner, and Shangla.
The military claimed it has “established [a] firm hold” on Peochar just one day after air-assaulting Army commandos into the region. Peochar hosts the headquarters for Swat Taliban leader Mullah Fazlullah, and contains training camps and fortified bunkers. Eleven Taliban fighters and four soldiers were killed during fighting in Swat over the past 24 hours, the military reported.
As journalists have been barred from the combat zone, the military’s claims cannot be verified. But past attempts to take Peochar, along with the recent operation in Buner, make the military’s claims suspect.
During three previous operations to oust the Taliban from Swat, the military failed to wrest control of Peochar; the current operation is named Rah-e-Haq 4.
And the military’s air assault into the town of Daggar in Buner has achieved far less success than advertised. On April 29, Pakistani commandos from the Special Service Group conducted an air assault into Daggar, and the military promptly claimed to have secured the town and government buildings, while the Frontier Corps established a headquarters there. Yet 15 days later, the military is still shelling Taliban positions in the town, and the Taliban controls the main roads into Daggar, effectively surrounding the Pakistani troops in the town.
The Taliban also remain in firm control of Mingora, the main town in Swat, despite military claims to have surrounded that city. The same is true of Madain in Dir and a host of towns in Swat.
“All exit roads from Mingora have been closed. Our troops have surrounded the city to deny any exit to militants,” a military official told The Nation. “We have also blocked the road to Dir as militants were using the route to flee to the tribal district of Bajaur,”
But the situation in Mingora is dire. The Taliban have been beheading and murdering locals and displaying their bodies as warnings not to cooperate with the military. The military admitted that the Taliban have held a large force under siege at the Mingora electrical grid station.
“These personnel are surrounded from all the directions,” said Major General Athar Abbas, the top military spokesman. “In the encounter two security personnel embraced shahadat [were killed].” The grid station has been under siege for nine days now and government forces have been unable to relieve them. The fighting at the station has knocked out power in much of Swat.
Despite the fighting in Swat and neighboring Dir and Buner, the government is claiming the situation in Swat is returning to normal and the Taliban are on the run.
“Harvesting of crops has commenced in Buner and Dir areas of Malakand division,” Interior Minister Rehman Malik told reporters. “The Swat offensive is continuing successfully.”
The claims of success are curious in light of reports of the deployment of six brigades, or two divisions, of Pakistani troops. According to The Nation, “one purpose of the move could be to contain the militants militarily in such a manner to make them unable to move to other adjoining areas, and to preempt efforts of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan to reinforce militants in Swat and Malakand.” This means the military did not launch its offensive in an organized matter; the offensive was launched with insufficient forces and no plan to block the Taliban movement from neighboring districts and tribal agencies.
The deployment of six additional brigades to the fight still puts the Pakistani military well below the number of brigades in the region prior to the military’s pullback after the Mumbai attack and subsequent tensions with India, Ravi Rikhye, the editor of Orbat.com said.
Last December the Pakistani Army withdrew an estimated 30,000 troops from the Northwest Frontier Province and the tribal areas to counter a perceived threat from India after Lashkar-e-Taiba launched a deadly military assault on Mumbai.
“When Pakistan maintained the equivalent of 20 brigades in the NWFP [Northwest Frontier Province]- till the Bombay crisis 2008, the Pakistan Army was getting badly beaten in each and every campaign,” Rikhye wrote. “Now the Pakistan Army appears to have ten brigades with perhaps six more on their way.”
The deployment of the six additional brigades likely is not enough, Rikhye wrote, as the Taliban is better organized and in control of more territory. “But the battle area is much wider this time because Shangla, Mardan, Buner, and Swabi Districts are involved,” Rikhye said. “Will sixteen brigades suffice where 20 did not, for a smaller area?”
Background on the Malakand Accord and fighting in Swat
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 districts of Malakand, Swat, Shangla, Buner, Dir, Chitral, and Kohistan. This region encompasses nearly one-third of the Northwest Frontier Province.
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.