November 03, 2009

Pakistan Dispatch: The lesser spotted last gasp

It's probably not even worth counting how many times one side of a conflict has portrayed the increasing violence of its foes as a "last gasp". The Taliban in Afghanistan has been gasping since about 2005, and the surge in attacks about a year after the invasion of Iraq was a last gasp right to the point militants butchered themselves to the very edge of a civil war. Londonstani's no expert on military history, but if semi-remembered school lessons serve him right, Goebbels was going on about the allies gasping their last as they marched in his direction. And of course, there was  Comical Ali...

And now its the turn of the militants in Waziristan. Pakistan's Chief of Army Staff, Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, told the prime minister today that the army's operation in the north, known as Rah-e-Najat, had "broken the terrorists' back". This comes a day after a suicide bomber killed 35 people after detonating in front of a bank in Rawalpindi, a few kms from the capital. Far removed from the actual events, it's easy to become inured to the seemingly endless and horrifically predictable litany of destruction. This BBC story gives a sense of the human tragedy of this latest episode.

"Local people said the area was absolutely packed with people at the time the explosion took place. One man came rushing to search for his father who had been going to pick up his pension. That man has not yet been found. His son said he was making a direct appeal to the government: 'Please, save our lives.'"

On the same day as the Rawalpindi attack, two suicide bombers in a car wounded 25 people when they blew themselves up after police stopped them trying to get into Lahore.

There is a report in the local press that Taliban commanders were intercepted plotting a huge 2,500kg explosion in Lahore. At first glance, this sounds overly ambitious on their part. However, such reports also predicted the attacks in Peshawar and the targetting of educational institutions. In that light, the premature explosions on the outskirts of Lahore take on an even more worrying dimension... Are there many other such explosive laden cars getting through to Lahore?

Further north, things are so bad the UN has pulled out its foreign workers out of NWFP. In Islamabad, the sense of fear is all encompassing. Second guessing what sort of areas militants might target has replaced second guessing who their "real" paymasters might be. A trip to some of Islamabad's usually popular evening haunts leaves you with a huge amunt of space to yourself. People don't seem to be too reassured by the blue-cad security guards who wave around a beeping electronic wand as you pass them before collapsing back on their chairs.

But if Islamabadies and Lahories are staying indoors out of fear, conditions for civilians in the conflict zone of South Waziristan must be much, much worse. Unfortunately, though, there is still little way to assess how the fighting is going. Which means there's no way to know whether the army's actions are giving birth to a future militant threat or effectively dealing with the present one.

The army has taken journalists up to the front, or near it. In this story, TIME reports on the fighting in the Sherwangai Valley. The army says that amongst all the laptops and weapons, it also found the passport of one of the 9/11 plotters. One Islamabad taxi driver's response to this was; "The army is trying to tell the Americans what it thinks they want to hear." But then, Islamabad taxi drivers, in Londonstani's experience, are a pretty cynical bunch.

In Londonstani's opinion Saleem Shehzad of Asia Times has some of the best contacts in FATA and should be listened to. This is how he sees the fighting in Waziristan:

Hakimullah Mehsud of the TTP, according to Asia Times Online contacts, has apparently adopted a strategy that will not expend too many resources on protecting the Mehsud area. Instead, he aims to spread chaos by attacking security personnel in the cities.

The same contacts say that when thousands of people left South Waziristan last week under the military's directives, a majority of the militants melted away to the Shawal region, situated at the crossroads of South Waziristan, Afghanistan and North Waziristan, besides going to Pakistani cities.

A very limited force is entrenched in the Mehsud tribal area, and by all accounts it is putting up fierce resistance.

By marching into South Waziristan, the military has taken something of a gamble as it is highly unlikely to eliminate the militant threat. Indeed, the past seven or so years have shown that after any operation against militants, the militants have always gained from the situation. By the same token, the militants don't have the capacity to permanently control ground beyond their areas in South Waziristan and North Waziristan.

...there are signals that the Taliban in the Swat area in North-West Frontier Province are regrouping after being pushed back by the army this year. It is likely that by the time the snow chokes major supply routes, the Taliban will have seized all lost ground in the Swat Valley.