Just one day after over 500 Taliban marched from the district of Swat in the Northwest Frontier Province into the neighboring district of Shangla and overran the district offices, the Pakistani Army and the Taliban fought a series of clashes in both districts. Reports on the outcome of the fighting are still sketchy, and the Pakistani Army and the Taliban claim each bloodied the other side.
The Pakistani military claimed to have killed 54 Taliban during three separate engagements, which largely consisted of helicopter gunship attacks and artillery barrages on Taliban positions. “According to reports, 31 militants were killed in Swat army operation while 23 were killed in Shangla,” The Nation reported, based on statements from military spokesman Major General Waheed Arshad. A prominent Taliban commander, who has not been named, was also reported killed in the fighting. Eleven civilians were also reported killed in the fighting.
The Taliban have not refuted the casualties, but said they inflicted heavy casualties on Pakistani forces in both Shangla and Swat. Sirajuddin, a spokesman for Taliban leader Maulana Fazlullah, “claimed that they had murdered at least 31 security forces personnel including four in Saidu Sharif and two in Batkhela and 23 in other parts of Shangla and Swat.” In the past, the Taliban reports of casualties and captured soldiers have proven to be accurate while the Pakistani military has repeatedly obscured the numbers.
The current round of fighting in Swat and Shangla was initiated by the Pakistani military, which “had been assigned to flush out fighters from Swat by the middle of December,” Al Jazeera reported, based on an anonymous police source.
The army recently assumed control of the offensive in the region, after hundreds of police and paramilitary soldiers defected or surrendered to the Taliban. A Pakistani offensive in Swat initiated on October 26 stalled after the Taliban killed or captured hundreds of police and paramilitary troops.
The Pakistani military has largely relied on air strikes and artillery bombardments to attack the Taliban in Swat and other tribal agencies and settled districts in the Northwest Frontier Province. To date, the military has failed to clear the Taliban from regions such as North and South Waziristan, Bajaur, and Swat and to hold that territory.
One unconfirmed report indicates the Taliban may actually be on the offensive. “According to another report, the militants, after having taken control of Alpuri, are moving towards other parts of Shangla and adjacent Kohistan and Battagram areas. So far they reached at Belay Baba and Korara areas,” The Nation reported.
Fazlullah’s Taliban in Swat is said to be supported by “up to 800 foreigners.” Fazlullah is one of the more radical and eccentric Taliban leaders in the Northwest Frontier Province. Known as Mullah FM, he preaches jihad and calls for the imposition of sharia law on his illegally run radio station. He campaigns against girls’ schools and polio vaccinations. Fazlullah also conducts campaigns where he organizes the burning of television sets, digital and video cameras, computers, and other electronics as they are a “source of sin.”
The 28-year-old radical cleric is leader of the local al Qaeda-linked and outlawed Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi (TNSM – the Movement for the Implementation of Mohammad’s Sharia Law), also referred to as “the Pakistani Taliban.” The TNSM sent over 10,000 of its fighters into Afghanistan to fight US forces in 2001 before the fall of the Taliban.
In neighboring Bajaur agency, the TNSM is run by Faqir Mohammed, who has close connections to al Qaeda’s Ayman al Zawahiri. Bajaur is an al Qaeda command and control node. The Pakistani government negotiated with Faqir and the TNSM in the spring of 2007, and the cut a “peace deal” that turned the province over to the terrorists. Multiple strikes against high-value al Qaeda targets have been conducted against Faqir’s compounds in Bajaur.
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