June 19, 2009

A good sign in Pakistan - we hope

Finally, some potentially good news coming out of Pakistan. While everyone's focus has been on the post-election violence in Iran, Pakistani troops continued their operations against the Pakistani Taliban in the Swat Valley to the point where they claim they have achieved their objectives. Now the army is poised to move against the Taliban along the mountainous border with Afghanistan.

According to the Pakistani minister of defense - granted, not always the most reliable source - Pakistani troops are wrapping up their operations in the Swat Valley and will be withdrawn in the next few days. The valley is less than 75 miles from the capital of Islamabad, the closest approach of Taliban forces thus far. There are mixed reports as to just how successful the operation in Swat has been, but given the proximity of the area to Islamabad, Pakistani forces will no doubt return if there is a Taliban resurgence.

If what the defense minister claims is true, that is good news, but it gets better. As part of the same announcement, he said that the army is now preparing for a major offensive in South Waziristan, the stronghold of the Pakistani Taliban and hideouts of the remnants of al-Qa'idah. It is suspected that Usamah bin Ladin may be in this area as well, although most of his fighters are leaving the area. See my earlier article, Al-Qa'idah on the run - again.

This is what the United States has been encouraging the Pakistanis to do for years. If the Pakistanis will not agree to cross-border operations by American troops in Afghanistan, Islamabad should move Pakistani troops into that area and deal with the Pushtun tribes who have been providing safe haven and refuge to Taliban and al-Qa'idah fighters. Perhaps it took the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in late 2007 and the recent approach of the Taliban to within 75 miles of Islamabad to wake up the Pakistani government. The man responsible for Bhutto's assassination, Beitullah Mehsud, is in South Waziristan.

The Pakistani government has always been reluctant to exercise its authority in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) along the Afghanistan border - South Waziristan is one of these areas. The area is almost totally under control of the Pakistani Taliban and is home to the ferociously-independent Pushtun tribes. Every time the Pakistan army has gone into these areas, they have taken significant casualties and almost have always failed to achieve their objectives.

Perhaps this time will be different - I hope so. Swat Valley was a wake-up call. Let's hope the leadership is paying attention.