The Big Question: Do Pakistan's gains in the Swat valley mean it is overcoming the Taliban?

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The Independent Online

Why are we asking this now?

Over the weekend, the Pakistani army announced that it had taken control of Mingora, the main town in the country's Swat Valley, which has been the location of a major operation to counter and kill Taliban fighters. Capture of the town was both a considerable strategic gain and a major morale-booster. Such was the sense of excitement that a defence official, Syed Athar Ali, predicted that the entire valley could be cleared of militants in just two or three days.

Most experts believe he may have been a little too optimistic, but having secured Mingora the army is now pushing further into the valley. Some of the Taliban are apparently trying to escape through the mountains to the neighbouring Kalam valley. Officials admit it will take some time to restore essential services in Mingora, but they are hopeful that some of the town's 300,000 residents forced from their homes will start to return if they have confidence in the security situation.



Why is the battle for Swat so important?



Before it fell under the mounting influence of the Taliban two years ago, the stunning, rugged valley was a popular tourist destination for middle-class Pakistanis and – unlike the tribal areas – was seen a part of "Pakistan proper". But after militants took effective control of the valley and then, in April, spilled into several neighbouring areas, including Buner and Lower Dir, no more than 60 miles from Islamabad, there was mounting pressure on the government to act.

The Obama administration considers the operation a test of resolve for President Asif Ali Zardari and the Pakistani military following years of claims that the army has been reluctant or unable to go to war against the militants. In turn, the Pakistani leadership has pitched the operation as nothing less than a fight for the survival of the country. As such, to this point, it appears to have a fair degree of popular support – even if Mr Zardari himself does not.



Had the government tried to do a deal with the Taliban?

Among the population of Swat - which until 1969 was a so-called princely state and not fully incorporated into Pakistan – there was mounting frustration with the official justice system. People complained about corruption and bureaucracy. The valley had a tradition of Sharia or Islamic law and the Taliban seized on the people's desire for speedier justice to push for the establishment of Sharia. The militants' version of this code, however, was overwhelmingly brutal; girls schools were burned, people were flogged or beheaded and women were banned from appearing in public.

Despite this, the government brokered a ceasefire deal in February that involved the establishment of official Sharia courts. But the Taliban failed to meet its end of the deal and lay down its weapons. In April, as the Taliban started to extend its grip into surrounding areas, the military launched its operation.



But is everything going as well as the army says?



While the army has certainly made considerable gains and claims to have killed 1,200 militants, analysts say the senior figures within the local Taliban – people such as Maulana Fazlullah – have not yet been dealt with. In recent days, however, the military raised the reward for information leading to Fazlullah's capture to 50m Pakistani rupees (£375,000). It has also published the names and photographs of several Taliban fighters, again with rewards for their capture, dead or alive.

Observers say that targeting the militant leadership is vital if the local Taliban network is to be crushed. "I think the tide is turning. I think that people are hopeful," said journalist and activist Zubair Torwali. "So far it's only the second or third tier of people who have targeted – they have yet to get the leadership." And just because the army has taken Mingora, driving the militants from the rest of the valley – particularly in those areas where they can fight a more classic guerilla warfare – may not be so easy. At the same time, the army will need to retain a substantial and visible presence in places such as Mingora both the build pubic confidence and to prevent the militants returning. Expecting home-grown militia or lashkars to maintain security – especially after such groups were previously abandoned by the authorities – is not feasible.



What has been the cost of the operation so far?

Perhaps the most obvious fall-out has been the flood of around 1.9m people who have fled their homes because of the fighting. Around 500,000 had already left last summer during a similar military operation in the Bajaur tribal area, bringing to 2.4m the likely total of displaced people. Around 200,000 are in camps, with the remainder squeezed into the homes of relatives or extended family members. More perilous, however, is what might be the start of a series of revenge attacks.

Last week, at least 30 people were killed and hundreds injured in a gun and bomb attack in Lahore, which militants claimed was carried out in direct response to what is happening in Swat. The following day, around 14 people were killed in a series of blasts in Peshawar. A spokesman for Baitullah Mehsud, a senior Taliban leader based in South Waziristan, urged the residents of the country's major cities to leave as more attacks were planned.



Is there anything else the Taliban could to to put pressure on the Pakistan government?



There are a number of options available to the militants. Last night it was reported the Taliban had captured a convoy of up to 400 students, teachers and their families in North Waziristan who were driving away from a cadet's school Details of what happened were initially unclear but negotiations were under way for their release. Meanwhile, there is also concern that militants could strike again at an Indian target, thereby creating fresh strain between the two countries and furthering Pakistan's isolation. This is what happened following the assault by Pakistani militants on Mumbai last year in which more than 165 people were killed.



Is the Pakistan army going to expand its operation further?

In the last week there have been reports of clashes between militants and troops in South Waziristan, raising speculation of the opening of a new front. Certainly a quick victory in Swat might encourage the military, but there may also be a genuine danger of over-extending itself. Washington would no doubt be supportive of an operation in the tribal areas that targeted militants responsible for cross border attacks.

If the military decided against such a move, the US might decide to step-up its deeply unpopular drone attacks in Waziristan. Meanwhile, the military is still trying to consolidate its victory in Bajaur, the tribal region bordering eastern Afghanistan where the Taliban were defeated after a seven-month campaign in March, and keep a lid on militants in Khyber, where truck convoys serving US and Nato forces in Afghanistan have periodically come under attack.

So has the tide turned?

Yes...

*The Swat valley is an important and symbolic gain for the military



*In countering the militants, much is about public confidence. The recapture of Mingora will help that



*The force of the military's operation surprised many. Taliban action was a 'wake-up call' for the authorities

No...

*The military had previously captured Swat only to allow the militants back in

*Countering the militants in places such as South Waziristan is likely to be far harder than in Swat

*More terror attacks will undermine public support for the military operation



a.buncombe@independent.co.uk

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