Calling the shots
In Swat the Pakistan army has shown it can take on the Taliban -- as long as Washington is nowhere in sight, writes Graham Usher in Mardan
In a two-day blitz on 27-28 May 40 people were killed -- most of them police officers -- in gun and suicide bomb attacks in the Pakistani cities of Lahore, Peshawar and Dera Ismail Khan. The carnage was expected. Most Pakistanis are bracing for more. And every one of them knows the cause.
"This is revenge... for the military operation going on in Swat in which many innocent people are being killed and the bombing campaign against the mujahideen," said Hakimullah Mehsud, on 28 May, between attacks.
Hakimullah is "special spokesman" for Baitullah Mehsud, leader of the Pakistan Taliban, now battling the army in Swat. Hakimullah warned citizens of other Pakistani cities to "evacuate" lest they too become the "target of massive attacks".
Very few Pakistanis have evacuated, even though they know Baitullah Mehsud has the organisation and wherewithal to deliver on the threat. If anything, the bombings have stiffened public resolve behind the most sustained counterinsurgency the Pakistan government has ever mounted against Islamic militancy. For the first time people believe it's the militants who are losing.
As Islamabad and other cities went on alert, the Pakistan army retook Mingora, the largest town in the Swat Valley. In less than four weeks the military vanquished a guerrilla force that for nearly a year had held the valley in thrall. Residents in Mingora describe how Taliban commanders fled to the mountains while local fighters -- many of them boys -- were "mowed down by troops". In Mingora the Taliban has been routed.
But at a price. The town and neighbouring villages have been reduced to relics. A thousand people have been confirmed killed, though the real toll is probably much higher. And approximately 2.4 million men, women and children have been driven from their homes, the largest internal refugee displacement since Rwanda. Most remarkably of all, most Pakistanis support the operation.
"The Taliban made an agreement with the government in Swat, and then broke it. The government was left with no option. They had to re-impose law and order. I think the army is doing the right thing," says Sajjad Ali.
He is a landlord in Mardan, a city on the road south of Swat. Like thousands of others he has opened up his home, heart and village to the displaced pouring out of the valley. His kin share his sentiments. "What could we do? I saw whole families adrift on the roadside. Swat is not far away. There are only these mountains between us. We know it could happen to us," says Javid Iqbal, his brother.
Such solidarity is rare. Pakistanis have historically opposed military campaigns against the Taliban, casting them as "America's war" or as "a conspiracy against Islam". But this time -- says former Pakistani Ambassador to Washington Maleeha Lodhi -- a coincidence of Taliban atrocity, army resolve and political consensus combined to produce public support for the action. "It also helped that the United States was not seen to be calling the shots," she adds.
The support is easily reversible. If -- after such defeats -- the Taliban are allowed to return and reorganise in Swat, fear will compound an already widespread cynicism that the army is still somehow in league with the militants. And if the refugees are not swiftly repatriated to their homes -- festering instead in camps -- backing for the government and army in Swat will dwindle.
Nor should the government overreach. On 25 May the army sent men into South Waziristan on the Afghan border. This is Baitullah Mehsud's base, the powerhouse of the Pakistan Taliban and a sanctuary from where Afghan Taliban steer their insurgency against the US and NATO in Afghanistan. On 31 May skirmishes between the army and Taliban in South Waziristan left dozens dead.
Washington would like the Pakistan army to take the war to South Waziristan and the other tribal areas, since they pose a much greater threat to America in Afghanistan than Swat. Army spokesmen say no military operation in South Waziristan is imminent. Baitullah Mehsud doesn't believe them. Most analysts think the bomb attacks in Lahore and Peshawar were as much a deterrent against the army acting in South Waziristan as retaliation for Swat, which the Pakistan Taliban seem to concede is lost.
Would a Swat-like operation against the Taliban in South Waziristan have the same public support?
"Doubtful," says Aijaz Gilani, chairman of Gallup Pakistan. His pollsters have been charting the "unusual circumstances" that brought the Pakistan government, US government and Pakistani people "on the same side" against the Taliban in Swat. He doesn't think they can be duplicated in the tribal areas.
"Rightly or wrongly, the events in Swat were seen to have implications for the rest of the country. This is not so with the tribal areas. The enhanced public support is for 'Pakistan's war on terror', not 'America's war on terror'. In Pakistani public opinion the two are quite separate."
This is Washington's bind. Swat has shown the Pakistani government and army can go after the Taliban -- and do so aggressively -- if they have a political and popular consensus behind them. But that consensus collapses if the action is linked to America's war in Afghanistan.
In Swat America delivers humanitarian aid -- anything else would be counterproductive.