Pakistani military, Taliban maneuver for position in northwest

Click map for full view. Taliban presence, in the Islamabad 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: April 24, 2009.

The Taliban blocked a military convoy from moving into the main town in Swat as rumors swirl that the military will launch an operation in the region over the next two days.

The Taliban surrounded a military convoy as it attempted to enter Mingora, the administrative seat of Swat. The Taliban surrounded the convoy “from all sides,” Dawn reported, and forced the military forces to retreat. The military “warned that if such a situation developed again, the armed forces would not hesitate to use force.”

The Taliban’s move against the military is the latest violation of the ceasefire agreement that put the Taliban in full control of Swat and consolidated their hold of the Malakand Division, an administrative region that encompasses more than one-third of the Northwest Frontier Province and includes the districts of Malakand, Swat, Shangla, Buner, Dir, Chitral, and Kohistan.

The peace agreement, known as the Malakand Accord, was implemented in the Malakand Division in mid-February. The agreement calls for the withdrawal of the Pakistani Army from Swat, the release all Taliban prisoners, the withdrawal of any criminal cases against Taliban leaders and fighters, and the imposition of sharia. President Asif Ali Zardari signed the sharia regulation into law even though the Taliban killed and kidnapped security personnel and government employees and continue to bear arms and patrol the region.

The agreement was signed with Sufi Mohammed, the leader of a Taliban front group that was banned in Pakistan after more than 10,000 of its members fought US forces in Afghanistan. Sufi was jailed for his actions and released in 2007 after the government was desperate to negotiate a peace agreement in Swat. Sufi is the father-in-law of Mullah Fazlullah, the radical leader of the Swat Taliban.

The Pakistan government’s peace agreement with the Swat Taliban and the subsequent approval of the sharia regulation have bolstered Islamist terrorists in northwestern Pakistan and created a new safe haven for al Qaeda and other terrorist groups. The Swat Taliban invited senior al Qaeda leaders to shelter in the region, and terrorists are opening training camps there.

The Taliban also advanced on the neighboring district of Buner and are threatening to conduct military takeovers of the districts of Mansehra, Haripur, Swabi, Mardan, and Malakand. The Taliban maintain a moderate or strong presence in these districts.

The Taliban moves are placing the capital of Islamabad and two vital nuclear facilities at risk. The Islamabad district government has taken the threat seriously and has deployed the paramilitary Rangers into the hills just north of the city.

Military operation considered

The latest Swat incident comes as the Pakistani military is signaling it plans on launching a new operation against the Taliban. Military officials told Dawn that an operation will be launched against the Swat Taliban in the next two days. The paramilitary Frontier Corps and even some regular Army units are said to be mobilizing for an operation, US intelligence officials toldThe Long War Journal.

Since the summer of 2007, the Pakistani military has been defeated in its three offensives designed to oust the Taliban, led by Fazlullah. These defeats prompted the government to promise the implementation of sharia and an end to military operations in exchange for peace.

The military mobilization takes place as the Pakistani military and government have come under intense criticism from US officials. The Pakistani Army is accused of idly standing by as the Taliban advances far from the distant tribal areas into the heart of Punjab province.

The Pakistani government and military is working to deflect this criticism. Yesterday, General Ashfaq Pervez Kiyani, Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff, said the Army “never has and never will hesitate to sacrifice, whatever it may take, to ensure safety and well-being of the people and country’s territorial integrity.”

“Victory against terror and militancy will be achieved at all costs,” Kiyani said, according to Dawn. He described the Malakand Accord as an “operational pause” designed to allow “reconciliatory forces” to restore peace in Swat.

There are other signs the government may move against the Taliban. Military forces are reported to have deployed to the village of Kalpani, Sufi Mohammed’s home town in the district of Dir.

“Security forces have started consolidating their positions and military gunships continued flying over the Tehsil [subdivision],” Geo News reported. “The area has been declared sensitive by the government due to increasing cases of kidnapping for ransom and other crimes.”

Also, the government removed Malakand division commissioner Syed Mohammad Javed from his post. Javed is a known Taliban sympathizer and is the architect of the Malakand Accord as well as the Taliban advance into Buner.

Javed ordered police forces and the tribal militias to stand down as the Taliban moved into Buner. His actions have demoralized government officials attempting to oppose the Taliban expansion in the insurgency-plagued Northwest Frontier Province.

Taliban ‘withdrawal’ from Buner in question

As reports of a pending military operation in Swat are released, the Taliban are said to be withdrawing their forces from Buner. Some reports indicated the Taliban conducted a full pullout from Buner.

“They [the Taliban] all have gone back [to Swat],” Javed told The Associated Press. “No one is left in Buner.” Javed also claimed the poorly armed and trained paramilitary Frontier Constabulary deployed more than 250 officers into Buner. Before the Taliban takeover of Buner earlier this month, Javed claimed the Taliban were withdrawing from the district. But the next day the Taliban flooded into Buner and took full control with no resistance.

Muslim Khan, the spokesman for Fazlullah, said Taliban fighters from Swat have withdrawn from Buner. “I do not know the exact number of my men who left the area but they all boarded in 15 vehicles to return to Swat,” Khan told AP. Khan claimed 100 Taliban form Swat left Buner. But more than 500 Taliban fighters are said to have entered Buner from Swat.

Khan also said the Taliban forces native to Buner are still in the region. This was confirmed by Buner’s police chief, who said they are still patrolling and manning checkpoints.

“They have gone, but left their germs here,” Abdul Rasheed Khan told Reuters. “Now we have about 200 local Taliban who can be seen on roadsides.”

US officials are skeptical that the Taliban are pulling out of Buner, and suspect any redeployment is merely a tactical move to counter any move by the Pakistani military.

“The Taliban movement in Buner is likely a redeployment to reinforce the Swat forces given that the government is making noise about an operation there,” a US military intelligence official told The Long War Journal. “If the Army is serious about conducting an operation in Swat, the Taliban will meet them with everything they have.”

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.

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18 Comments

  • NS says:

    The Taliban surrounded the convoy “from all sides,” Dawn reported, and forced the military forces to retreat. The military “warned that if such a situation developed again, the armed forces would not hesitate to use force.”
    The dog that barks never seems to bite – what exactly are they waiting for ? So that a similar situation develops “again”??
    If any one ever wonders how the Taliban have taken over large chunks of territory then that meaningless “warning” from the Paki military should give us all a clue.

  • Marlin says:

    You have to give General Kayani of the Pakistan Army marks for ‘chutzpah’ if nothing else. It still comes down to whether or not he really has the stomach to commit to a long-term military offensive. If not, I don’t think an impudent attitude like this will matter much.

    In a strongly worded statement, Pakistan’s army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, warned Friday that no one should mistake a pause in military operations as a concession to the militants.
    “The army is determined to root out the menace of terrorism from the society,” Kayani said in the statement. “It will not allow the militants to dictate terms to the government or impose their way of life on the civil society of Pakistan.”
    A Pakistani army officer, who asked to remain anonymous because he is not authorized to speak to the media, said Kayani’s statement was directed at the politicians who are criticizing the army and at Western voices who are describing a doomsday scenario for Pakistan. “The chief’s statement was basically a ‘shut-up’ call,” he said.

    MSNBC: Inside The Taliban’s ‘Grave Error’

  • NS says:

    Marlin,
    Thanks for the link to the MSNBC article on Taliban’s “grave error”
    Money quote that left me jaw dropping
    “The Taliban finally made a grave error”, said Javed Siddiq, editor of the influential Urdu language daily Nawa-e-Waqt.
    “Once they challenged Pakistan’s constitution as un-Islamic, Islamic scholars and the Pakistani people no longer saw them as the self-styled defenders of Islam against western infidels – but infidels themselves who want to dismantle the Pakistani state.”
    Self Styled defenders of Islam ?? ROFL !!
    Against Western infidels – Here we go again.
    I thought that it was only Afghanistan that had a serious problem of its civilians being hooked to drugs with all the poppy and opium that grows there.
    I was wrong. The kind of delusions that some among the intelligentsia of Pakistan lives under – (we are talking about a newspaper editor, here) is truly remarkable.
    It is also interesting to read that the Taliban got the message from the Chief of Pakistan’s Army staff – i thought they were supposed to fighting each other, no? /sarc

  • Neo says:

    The Pakistan army needs to be very careful about walking into a large scale ambush if they try to take Mingora without adequate support. The Russians learned this back in the first Chechen war on Dec. 1994 when a poorly supported and coordinated column entered Grozny and was largely destroyed by Chechen and Islamist fighters.
    Asking the Pakistani’s to learn from others mistakes seems to be too much.

  • Minnor says:

    Maybe it’s only me who thinks situation as positive. Swat Taliban tasted peace, and now ready for compromises. And it is behaving logically and knows its limits. Military did not use force against surrounded taliban because of peace deal.
    And above all there was hardly any bloodshed in Swat or Buner for last 2 months.
    Situation around Peshawar improving as Orakzai operation kills 46 in one week.

  • Bill stated that,
    “The latest Swat incident comes as the Pakistani military is signaling it plans on launching a new operation against the Taliban. Military officials told Dawn that an operation will be launched against the Swat Taliban in the next two days. The paramilitary Frontier Corps and even some regular Army units are said to be mobilizing for an operation, US intelligence officials toldThe Long War Journal.”
    Is this an example of the Pakistani Army doing much too little, much too late? The army certainly is taking its sweet time to react to this. Also, what is this fetish the Pakistani government has for sending in paramilitary Frontier Corps units or “Rangers” instead of regular army units? This is a heavily armed insurrection and paramilitary units don’t have the firepower to eradicate this menace. When are the Pakistanis going to realize this? And then, when they send in lightly armed Rangers to take on heavily armed Taliban units, they wonder why the Rangers end up getting the hell kicked out of them. The Pakistanis need to send in heavily armed army units, supported by helicopters and jets and (heaven forbid) some armor too. Why don’t they get that? Unless, of course, the bulk of the country wants the Taliban to win.

  • Marlin says:

    Swabi lies between Buner and Islamabad. Obviously, different actors are still trying to influence events in the region.

    Police claimed foiling a terrorism plot having seized 475-kilogram explosive materials from a vehicle and rounded up two militants under the jurisdiction of Chotta Lahore police station in Swabi tehsil late on Saturday, Geo news reported.

    Geo TV: Swabi police seize 475 kg explosives, arrest two

  • Cordell says:

    Pakistan keeps asking the US for more planes and attack helicopters to defeat the Taliban, but where is the Pakistani air force in the fighting? The Taliban have little in the way of air defense and yet they move into Buner via a convoy of ~25 light trucks on narrow roads. A couple of jets could have turned this advance into something akin to the Gulf War’s “highway of death.” Either Pakistan’s military had such poor air surveillance or on-the-ground intelligence that they could not scramble aircraft in time to attack the Taliban column or the Pakistani air force was sitting on its hands. The failure to attack when the likely outcome is overwhelmingly in one’s favor suggests incompetence at the highest levels of leadership. The Taliban was routed from Afghanistan in three weeks by the combination of ~10,000 Northern Alliance troops and US air power coordinated by embedded CIA ground spotters.

  • KnightHawk says:

    This is like watching an episode of 24 play out, only knowing there is no jack bauer coming to the rescue.

  • JMS says:

    I think the Pakistani military is split. This is the scariest thing yet, because the Pakistani military, bad as it is, is the only thing holding the country together. If it splits for good, so does Pakistan.
    The politicians have no control of this situation, because the military controls all foreign and internal security policy. I’m sure the elected pollies would send full force against the Taliban, but they can’t, because the military doesn’t take orders from them. The military sees itself as the guardians not only of Pakistan’s security, but of its soul. Remember that Pakistan was created primarily on the premise that Indian oppression (Hindu oppression) had to be opposed. That’s always been issue number one. The military sees Islamism as its secret weapon against the Hindu foe, gaining them many battalions of irregular forces, and making Pakistan an Iraq-style nightmare if India tried to occupy it.
    In asking them to turn their weapons on the Taliban, the west is asking the military to give up that entire ideology. Pakistan’s best military units are on the front with India. To turn them around, and point them at the Taliban, would be in the eyes of the generals to betray not just the raison d’etre of the Pakistani Army, but that of the entire nation. I’d guess they don’t act because they’re squabbling about it right now. Some say they must act, others refuse. It’s also why so many Pakistanis are completely blind to what’s happening — they live in an ideological dream world. Asking them to believe that Islamism is bad and India is not the most serious enemy is asking them to believe that the entire foundation on which the Pakistani nation was created was wrong. And therefore, that Pakistan was founded on a mistake.
    Which it was. But they can’t accept it, and now, you see the paralysis. So the question is, if the country splits, which part ends up with the nukes? And how bad does a Pakistani civil war have to get before India intervenes? After five million desperate refugees flee into Indian Punjab? Ten million? When East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) split from West Pakistan, that civil war was horrid, and was ended only by Indian intervention.
    Obama should be shoring up his relations with India real fast, he might need them.

  • Spooky says:

    For reasons of security, all Pakistani nukes are in the Punjab, with MAYBE a few in Sindh for whenever they finish making their subs nuclear launch capable. If Pakistan splits though, even the potential few in Sindh would go back to Punjab.
    In the event of a full civil war, India would worry that terrorists might try to use the refugee hordes comin over the border as cover, so I could see India turning back the refugees for reasons of security.

  • Neo says:

    There is currently a military offensive in Lower Dir.
    //www.dawn.com/wps/wcm/connect/dawn-content-library/dawn/news/pakistan/11-pakistan-begins-military-offensive-against-taliban–07
    I’ll reserve judgment until things play out a little.

  • NS says:

    No matter how the military offensive in Dir ends, it seems pretty clear by now that
    A. The Pakistan has never had any intentions to oust the Taliban, let alone the means
    B. The Taliban which used to be Pakistan’s client has now increased its own leverage with the Pakistan Army – they now demand atleast an equal partner status as a first step and ultimately overall control of Pakistan.
    C. The US has more or less come to terms with the fact that Pakistan is not going to give up on the Taliban. Hence the noises about making overtures to “moderate” Taliban. Inspite of every thing that it has done from drone attacks to helping the Afghans, it still seems to be very sensitive to Pakistan’s concerns about maintaining influence in Afghanistan.
    The biggest concerns for the US right now are that Afghanistan/Pakistan should not become such open fields for plotting terror attacks on the home land and not lose geo strategic influence in the region.
    Orbat.com has a very interesting take on the events of the last week.

  • Mr. Big says:

    Neo,
    Thanks for the link. I didn’t find this very comforting:
    “Western governments that need Pakistan’s support to defeat al Qaeda and succeed in stabilising Afghanistan, dread the idea of any threat to the security of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons.
    ‘We can’t even contemplate that,’ US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in an interview with Fox News in Baghdad.”
    I hope Hillary just misspoke and that the administration has contemplated what to do if the situation continues to deteriorate. Any ideas on what our options might be and whether the possibility of U.S. forces on the ground in Pakistan may be among them?

  • aewn says:

    U.S. options in Pakistan:
    I think U.S. troops should be considered if the nukes are threatened. But, should only be done with the limited goal in mind of securing the nukes. Ultimately the Pakistanis must start taking responsibility of their own country.
    Our options are:
    1: Develope a combined plan, maybe involving sharing of U.S. intelligence (as far as we trust the Pak) and guidance / training to help the Pak Army drive out Taliban. This is of course contingent on that Pak actually wants to remove Taliban.
    2: Let Pak stand by itself and only move in if/when the nukes are threatened. Secure the Nukes, and let Pak do what Pak must.
    The best option, I guess, would be the combined one. Could we squeeze the Taliban between our troops in Afghanistan and a reawakened, emboldened Pak military operation with support from Pakistani civilians?

  • NEO says:

    “Taliban derides ‘worthless’ truce with Pakistan”

  • Bill Roggio says:

    Render & Robert, please take this discussion elsewhere.

Iraq

Islamic state

Syria

Aqap

Al shabaab

Boko Haram

Isis