The Pakistani military continues to rely on helicopter gunships, attack aircraft, and artillery against dug in Taliban forces in the Swat valley as heavy fighting has been reported over the past 24 hours. The military claimed 143 Taliban fighters were killed in Swat and another 15 were killed in Dir, but the casualties could not be confirmed.
“So far, 143 militants have been killed in last twenty four hours while security forces have suffered seven shaheed (killed or martyred) and twelve injured,” Major General Athar Abbas, the senior military spokesman said at a press conference at military headquarters in Rawalpindi.
Fighting was reported in the Kabal, Kanju, Khawazakhela Chamtalai, and Mingora regions in Swat. The military claimed a Taliban commander named Akbar Ali was killed during strikes in Kanju.
The Taliban are reportedly holding more than 100 security personnel in Mingora. Abbas said regular Army soldiers and paramilitary Frontier Corps soldiers were killed in the fighting.
Click map for full view. Taliban presence, by district, in the Malakand Division region in Pakistan . Information on Taliban presence obtained from open source reporting and sources, and derived by The Long War Journal based on the presence of Taliban shadow governments, levels of fighting, and statements from ISAF commanders. Map created by Bill Raymond for The Long War Journal.
In Dir, the military claimed it is in control of the Madain region, the home town of pro-Taliban cleric Sufi Mohammed, and killed 15 Taliban, including two commanders and 13 fighters during an engagement there. But local residents said the Taliban are still patrolling the region and are preaching and recruiting at mosques. The Taliban denied taking high casualties in Dir, saying only one fighter was killed along with a Pakistani soldier who was killed in an ambush.
The Taliban are blocking military deployments into Dir and Swat by attacking convoys in the town of Chakdara in Dir. Chakdara is strategically located at the entrance to both Dir and Swat. Troops are moved from the Malakand district through Chakdara. The military declared a curfew in Malakand as Taliban fighters are attacking in the district as well.
In Buner, the military claimed it is close to victory after taking control of the main town of Daggar and the Ambela region. The Taliban are still in control of the towns of Sultanwas and Pir Baba, and are said to control the main roads around Daggar. Residents are fleeing Ambela despite the military’s claims the region is under control.
Government talks tough on Taliban
The Pakistani government claimed it is serious about tackling the Taliban threat in the northwest. The statements were made as President Asif Ali Zardari was visiting the US in an effort to obtain aid for his country.
Yesterday, Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani addressed the nation on television and said the Taliban would be defeated. “The army has been called in to eliminate the militants,” Gilani said. “Nobody can be allowed to challenge the writ of the government.”
Zardari claimed the operation in Swat “will go on till the situation returns to normal” and said the problem is not limited to Pakistan.
“There’s a realization in the world that it’s a regional problem, a worldwide problem,” Zardari said. “It is not an Afghan or a Tora Bora problem. It is not a problem secluded in the mountains of Pakhtoonkhwa [the Pashtun region straddling Pakistan and Afghanistan]. This realization brings strength to the fight.”
But Pakistani politicians have talked tough against the Taliban in the past and have let the Taliban off the hook. After the massive suicide bombing at the Islamabad Marriott, the government described the incident as Pakistan’s September 11 and launched offensives in Swat and Bajaur. The operations ended without conclusion after several months of fighting by the poorly armed and trained police and Frontier Corps.
Pakistani political and military leaders are signaling that the current offensive may be limited to the Swat region. Zardari only discussed the ongoing operation in the Swat, Buner, and Dir region and made no mention of the tribal areas of North and South Waziristan, Kurram, Mohmand, Arakzai, Khyber, and Bajaur, and the districts of Tank, Bannu, Hangu, and other districts under Taliban control or influence.
Zardari also signaled that there is little in the way of regular Army reinforcements to aid in any offensive. Only three brigades of Pakistani regular troops, an estimated 9,000 troops, are being moved into the region from the Northern Areas, a sparsely populated region bordering India-held Kashmir. Zardari said there are no more troops available to be moved from the Indian border.
“Half of our army is deployed on Indo-Pak Eastern boarder and we cannot move army from there for their deployment on Western border,” Zardari said, according to Geo News. When asked why more troops wouldn’t be deployed from the Indian border, he replied: “We have already done so.”
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.
The Pakistani military leadership has loathed to commit to fighting the Taliban out of fear that the Army will split apart and leave Pakistan open to an Indian assault. The Pakistani military establishment views India, and not the Taliban, as the real threat to security, despite the Taliban’s bloody insurgency that has hit in every major city.
“The Army leadership and General Kiyani [the Chief of Army Staff] in particular fear that battling the Taliban will split the officer corps and the rank and file,” a senior US military intelligence official told The Long War Journal. “There is significant support or sympathizers in the military for the Taliban and other Pakistani jihadi organizations. A full on fight [with the Taliban] might force them to take sides.”
Minister for Interior Rehman Malik has already declared the Swat, Dir, and Buner operations a success and said the military has performed well in the tribal areas, even though there currently is no activity there.
Abbas has claimed the Taliban have suffered a stinging political defeat as the people know they stand neither for Islamic law nor the people after rejecting the latest peace agreement. Past and similar Pakistani governments have made this same argument after peace agreements have failed, yet more deals were reached and the Taliban have moved closer to Islamabad and Peshawar.
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, a region that 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.
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