What outcome for Pakistan's Swat battle?

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The Independent Online

A suicide car-bomber killed 10 people at a security checkpost in northwest Pakistan today as the army battled Taliban militants in the Swat valley.

Nuclear-armed Pakistan hopes to stop a growing Taliban insurgency with its offensive in the former tourist valley of Swat, 130 km (80 miles) from Islamabad, after US criticism that the government was failing to act against the militants.

Here are some possible outcomes of the fighting in Swat that the military says pits about 15,000 members of the security forces against up to 5,000 militants.



QUICK SUCCESS

Army chief General Ashfaq Kayani said last week the army would "employ requisite resources to ensure a decisive ascendancy over the militants." A quick defeat of the Taliban in Swat would allow the army to move on to tackle militant strongholds on the Afghan border, such as North and South Waziristan, part of a region from where the Taliban orchestrate their Afghan war and where al Qaeda plots violence. Public opinion is behind the offensive and success would reassure the many who are skeptical about the alliance with the United States. It would also bolster support for unpopular President Asif Ali Zardari.

However, the Pakistani army has since its creation in 1947 focused on the threat from old rival India and critics say it is not trained or properly equipped for a counter-insurgency operation. That could make quick success a long-shot.



INCONCLUSIVE CAMPAIGN

The army has in the past relied on artillery and air strikes to fight the militants, which critics say invariably involves civilian casualties. That alienates the people when the army should be winning hearts and minds. About 200,000 people have fled from Swat and another 300,000 are expected to leave, joining more than 500,000 already displaced by fighting since August.

The Taliban are likely to withdraw into remote valleys, striking back with bomb attacks on military convoys, posts and camps. They can also be expected to step up attacks outside Swat to create diversions and undermine public support.

An inconclusive campaign with heavy civilian casualties and more bomb attacks would undercut public support and provide ammunition to critics who decry fighting "America's war." A frustrated United States could step up strikes on fighters by its pilotless drone aircraft while the government might try a peace deal like the one that has just fallen apart. If history is a guide, this may be the most likely scenario.



A TALIBAN TAKEOVER?

No one expects the Taliban, fighting to impose their version of Islamist rule, to defeat the powerful army militarily. But the fear is that a failed offensive and surging militant violence could demoralize the country to such an extent that authorities gradually cede power to the militants in more areas through peace deals and inaction to stop the bloodshed. Some analysts say this scenario, though unlikely, could lead to the collapse of the government and even the break-up of the state.



REGIONAL SCENARIOS

Neighbors Afghanistan and India will welcome Pakistani action against militants. Both say militants from Pakistan are behind attacks on their countries and a Pakistani offensive can be expected to preoccupy the fighters at home.

But there's a danger militants might try to stage an attack in India to spark a confrontation between the nuclear-armed Neighbors. That would divert Pakistan's attention and resources to its eastern border, as happened after November's militant assault on the Indian city of Mumbai.



ECONOMIC RISKS

Pakistan's financial markets have to some extent become used to violence but a surge of bomb attacks in cities, especially the commercial capital Karachi, could undermine investor confidence just as inflation is easing and interest rates are coming down.

The United Nations and aid groups are helping those displaced by fighting since August, who number nearly 1 million, but the exodus puts an extra burden on an economy propped up by a $7.6 billion International Monetary Fund loan.

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