Swat offensive stalls as Taliban strike outside the war zone

Aftermath of the May 22, 2009 bombing outside a cinema in Peshawar. AFP Photo.

As the Pakistani military operation in Swat is called into question, the Taliban have stepped up attacks in the central region in the Northwest Frontier Province. Over the past 24 hours the Taliban conducted three deadly attacks against security forces and civilians in Peshawar, Tank, and Dera Ismail Khan.

The largest attack took place today as the Taliban detonated a car bomb outside a cinema in the busy Khyber Bazaar in the provincial capital of Peshawar. Ten civilians were killed and more than 75 were wounded, some critically, according to Geo News.

The bombing was timed to maximize casualties. “The blast took place when a film show had just ended and the people were coming out,” a witness told Dawn.

Just hours after the attack, Taliban fighters tossed two hand grenades at a police checkpoint in Peshawar. No casualties were reported in that attack.

Peshawar has been the scene of several Taliban attacks; the last one took place just six days ago when a car bomb killed 11 people after it was detonated near an ice cream shop and Internet cafe. The security situation has deteriorated to the point where the city has been described as under siege. The Taliban have been enforcing Islamic law in regions of Peshawar and have ordered cinemas and CD and video shops to close.

Two attacks took place yesterday in the districts of Tank and Dera Ismail Khan. In Tank, a suicide bomber rammed into a Frontier Corps fort in the Jandola region, killing five paramilitary troops and four civilians, and wounding 25 more. And in nearby Dera Ismail Khan, five civilians were killed and another 25 were wounded after a roadside bomb was detonated at a bazaar. The Taliban have conducted numerous attacks in both districts. The Pakistani government has admitted that both districts are essentially under Taliban control.

Pakistani Army makes little progress in Swat

In Swat, Buner, and Dir, the Pakistani Army’s reported successes are being called into question. The Pakistani Army has barred independent reporting from the battlefield and has closely controlled the message. But the military’s reports have often been contradictory and have been described as “wildly exaggerated.”

The military has reported massive Taliban casualties with few casualties incurred by security forces. Nearly 1,200 Taliban fighters have been reported killed while only an estimated 60 security forces have been reported killed. No senior Taliban commanders have been killed or captured during the operation.

The military has refused to acknowledge that any civilian casualties have occurred. And there has been no word on the status of more than 100 members of the police, Army, Frontier Corps, Levies, and the Special Service Group who were captured by the Taliban. Four of the elite Special Service Group commandos were killed attempting to escape; the military never acknowledged this, however.

More than a week ago, the Army claimed that the main town of Mingora was surrounded; subsequent reports indicate, however, that troops are still advancing. Today, the military reported it captured “three-fourths of a ridge” outside of Mingora.

More than a week after air-assaulting into the small and isolated town of Peochar, a Taliban stronghold, the military has failed to clear the town.

“Peochar is a small town, it is strange that it hasn’t been cleared by now,” A US intelligence official tracking the operation told The Long War Journal. “This tells you two things: the Army is fighting a tough, well trained Taliban force; and the operation isn’t going as well as the Army brass wants us to believe.”

In the town of Kalam in northern Swat, the military is absent while the Taliban are attempting to overrun the region. The tribesmen raised a lashkar, or tribal militia, and asked the Taliban to leave the region to spare it from military attacks. The lashkar then captured eight Taliban fighters.

In response, the Taliban blocked the roads to prevent security forces from advancing to the region and began hunting down members of the lashkar. The military has failed to come to their aid after the tribes “made fervent [appeals] to the government, particularly the Army, to reach the area and save the local population as the local Lashkar lacked sophisticated weapons and a trained force to challenge the Taliban,” according to a report in The News. The government, however, has claimed that the tribe in Kalam has been successful in opposing the Taliban.

The military also claimed the district of Swat has been sealed off. “The noose is tightening around them,” Major General Sajad Ghani said. “Their routes of escape have been cut off.”

But the military failed to deploy enough forces to block the routes into and out of Swat at the onset of the operation, and only began moving forces two weeks after the start of the offensive. Taliban forces have moved into Shangla, Mardan, and Battagram in units ranging from 50 to 150 fighters, and have established footholds in the regions [see LWJ report, Taliban move forces eastward into Battagram]. Just four days ago, a force of 70 Taliban fighters moved into a region in Shangla.

Journalists and residents who are fleeing Swat have questioned the military’s claims of success in Swat. A reporter from The Associated Press, who was one of a few journalists given a brief tour of the battlefield, was skeptical of the military’s claims of fierce fighting in the district.

“From the air, there was little evidence of the fierce fighting and air strikes that the military claims have already killed more than 1,000 militants as well as some 60 soldiers,” Dawn reported.

A resident who recently left Swat told the BBC that the Taliban still controls much of Swat and that the military’s claims of success are false.

“The government spokesmen, sitting in Islamabad or Peshawar, are making false claims about the situation in Swat, saying they have taken control of the situation, or captured that place, or killed so many Taliban,” Mehmood told the BBC. “I swear upon God that it’s nothing like that.”

“Except for some parts of the GT (Grand Trunk) road, some mountain tops and the circuit house in Mingora, all of Swat is under the control of the Taliban,” he continued. “If the government really has cleared and taken control of the region, it should bring in the media and let the whole world see it for themselves. I keep moving around, and in several places I have seen army checkpoints with a Taliban checkpoint nearby.”

Mehmood also said the military is largely killing civilians, not Taliban fighters. “A majority of the people killed here are civilians.”

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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20 Comments

  • peter says:

    Error Mr. Roggio
    “Nearly 1,200 Taliban fighters have been reported killed while only an estimated 60 have been reported killed”

  • Marlin says:

    I, too, question how effective the Pakistani Army has been in Swat. Howeve, this article provides some insight on one of their recent successes.

    It was the bloodiest battle yet in what has been called a war for the survival of Pakistan. The Taleban had set up their main military camp on a 7,000ft mountain ridge overlooking the picturesque Swat Valley and were using a labyrinth of caves and underground bunkers for shelter.
    For two weeks the fighting raged as Pakistani troops, backed by fighter jets and helicopter gunships, struggled to dislodge the militants from the ridge known as Biny Baba Ziarat.
    Finally, on Wednesday, the army captured the ridge in what it is now hailing as its most significant victory over the Taleban since launching an offensive on Swat last month.
    […]
    “We cannot give any timeline for the end of fighting,”

  • KW64 says:

    These attacks are for diversion mostly I would guess. Short term they could divert army units to pursue them but long term the public is more and more siding against the taliban and this sort of thing will divert focus from civilian casualties caused by the pakistani army.

  • Neo says:

    “The government spokesmen, sitting in Islamabad or Peshawar, are making false claims about the situation in Swat, saying they have taken control of the situation, or captured that place, or killed so many Taliban,”

  • Neo says:

    By the way, I doubt I got the location of ‘Banai Banda Ziarat’ correct. It isn’t clearly marked as such on any map so I had to do some guessing. Does anyone know the actual location?
    I’ve had Kambar marked for a while now though. 34°45’60″N, 72°19’37″E, I’m pretty sure on that one. I have seen no information on which bridges they are referring to. The Mingora river runs past Kambar and has a bridge across it on the north side of the village. Also, there are a another two bridges across the Mingora river before it enters the south end of the city (and several more bridges within the southern end of the city)

  • DANNY says:

    Sounds like Mehmood is spouting the typical propaganda, trying to discredit the government. (the US backers) Never in any war against these type of militants, AKA terrorist, does anybody sympathetic, count the dead fighter as anything but civilians. After all they don’t wear army uniforms so the can be called civilians. The are the same all over the world, lying is OK as long as they are doing God’s work. A lie is a lie is a lie.

  • Marlin says:

    If this is true, it would be a good sign.

    Pakistani security forces have entered the main town in a northwestern valley where Taliban fighters are holed up, engaging the militants in fierce street fights, the army’s top spokesman said Saturday.
    […]
    “Street fights have begun,” Abbas said. “It is a difficult operation because we have to make a house-to-house search. We have cleared some of the area in the city.”

    Associated Press: Pakistan: Troops battle Taliban in main Swat town

  • Neo says:

    Pakistani military announces beginning of operation to retake Mingora. Heavy street fighting reported.
    //www.dawn.com/wps/wcm/connect/dawn-content-library/dawn/news/pakistan/03-troops-enter-mingora-fierce-street-fights-erupt-05

  • conycatcher says:

    It sounds like the Pakistani military needs new leadership. And we thought that the US military in Afghanistan needed new leadership.

  • Midnight says:

    …….well, at least the Russians arent down there hunting bandits too.

  • tbrucia says:

    It would be interesting to follow events from a drone since human reporting seems so riddled with lies, speculation, etc. Again, it seems the first victim of war is indeed the truth… In a month or so, we’ll know who is in control of Mingora…. in the meantime don’t expect Zadari to vacation in the Swat Valley.

  • Neo says:

    IT’S CALLED THE KUMBAR (Qumbar) Ridge.
    34°45’52″N, 72°20’43″E
    I will repeat: It’s a 3km long ridge, it’s not a bridge.
    It dominates the south-west corner of Mingora and forms the Eastern side of the Saidu Sharif valley. There seems to be quite a bit of fighting in the northern end of the Saidu sharif valley around the Continental Hotel.
    There is a second major battle around the New Town section of the north-west end of the city where the Airport Road heads into the city from across the Swat river.

  • Neo says:

    In light of the above information, I think it might be a bit harsh to call the offensive on Mingora “stalled”

  • Neo says:

    There are two bridges across the Haronai river, a tributary of the Swat river.
    The Bariam bridge 1 km south of Matta. 34°54’57N, 72°24’42″E
    The Vainai (Wanai) bridge 9km north east of Matta. 34°59’13″N, 72°21’8″E
    It crosses the Haronai river, a tributary of the Swat river. It must be crossed to get to the Peochar area. They have another 20 km to of hard terrain before getting to Peochar.
    Wanai? Bridge
    Here is a map of Mingora. (of course the news releases will have different names for over half this stuff, so good luck on identifying anything)
    //www.cybercity-online.net/pakistan/html/mingora.html
    Here is an article about recent events in Mingora.
    //www.kansascity.com/451/story/1213908.html
    Chowk = street intersection

  • Neo says:

    Nuts. Didn’t get that edited correctly. Try again.
    There are two bridges across the Haronai river, a tributary of the Swat river.
    The Bariam bridge 1 km south of Matta. 34°54’57N, 72°24’42″E
    The Vainai (Wanai) bridge 9km north east of Matta. 34°59’13″N, 72°21’8″E
    They have another 11 km to of hard terrain from the Wanai bridge before getting to Peochar.
    Here is a map of Mingora. (of course the news releases will have different names for over half this stuff, so good luck on identifying anything)
    //www.cybercity-online.net/pakistan/html/mingora.html
    Here is an article about recent events in Mingora.
    //www.kansascity.com/451/story/1213908.html
    Chowk = street intersection That might help a little.

  • Neo says:

    Pakistani Army takes major intersections in Mingora.
    Road across the Swat river to Kanju is open.
    Relief supplies dispatched from Khawazakhela toward Madian, Bahrain, Kalem in the upper Swat valley.
    //www.dawn.com/wps/wcm/connect/dawn-content-library/dawn/news/pakistan/07-security-forces-gain-ground-close-in-on-mingora-ha-06

  • Neo says:

    Yes, we all knew this was coming.
    “Taliban lying low to fight another day”

  • Mr T says:

    “Why they don’t work in close coordination with the locals is beyond me.”
    Hint: Is it possible the locals and the military are symphathizers with the Taliban cause? That leads to their confusion about what to do. Are they for them or against them?

  • Kinman says:

    I would Imagine the Pakistani Military to be a bit like the Egyptian Military. Commanded by those born into wealth and not like our own. where you rise through the ranks by your actions and victories. This may seem trivial to some.
    Does anyone here have any info on the command and structure of the military in pakistan? and how it may function from within? You can bet the taliban do. If my assumption is correct than you can bet the rest of the government operates the same way. this is critical to trooper morale ie. why should i go in that building and get blown away if my CO. isnt going to give me any credit and i can never rise through the ranks? These weaknesses seem clear to me reading these articles. Now the army wants weapons but no training?
    Seems to me that the Pakistanis are not yet ready to air their dirty Laundry to the rest of the world. But clearly they at least know that they have it. I say the Pakistanis have only a government subsidized by us, are only good for so much and must be circumvented wherever possible.

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