Imagine the following scenario: Taliban terrorists provoke a response by the Pakistani army, which rolls in with heavy firepower, air strikes, and ground troops. The international community eyes the situation with concern, fearing for the security of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. The United States worries that the fighting may further destabilize Afghanistan. The Taliban issues defiant statements predicting that Pakistan will soon belong to them and their ideological fellow-travelers. Breaking news? Yes, but also a bad case of deja vu.
Six months ago, Taliban militants displaced the Pakistani military in the Swat Valley and imposed Sharia law. The Pakistani government, domestically unpopular and at risk of being overthrown in a military coup, ceded control of vast swaths of territory. The Taliban took a mile instead of the proffered inch, and continued to press the government ever harder. The international community reacted with alarm, and, desperate to avoid total humiliation, the Pakistani military rolled in, beat back the Taliban, and declared victory. Violence continued, but it seemed for a time that the Pakistani Army had done what has so far seemed beyond all of NATO’s might: taken on the Taliban and won a measure of peace.
The last several weeks have shattered that pleasant fiction. The Taliban is back in Pakistan, and making themselves known in frighteningly direct ways. Cities across Pakistan have endured daring attacks, the scale and coordination of which have shocked the Pakistani security forces. Major terrorist attacks, which over the summer had dropped off to once or twice a month, have become practically a daily occurrence.
On October 5, the United Nation’s World Food Program office in the capital city of Islamabad was bombed by a terrorist wearing the uniform of a Pakistani security officer, killing five UN employees. On October 9, a car bomb killed 49 people shopping in a crowded market in the city of Peshawar, and injured twice that number. The next day was marked by a brazen attack that has deeply undermined the confidence of Pakistan’s ruling elites’ in the once-dependence military. Terrorists successfully stormed the Pakistani military headquarters, taking many hostages. Several high-ranking officers and three hostages were killed before commandos could storm the facility, freeing the remaining hostages and killing nine terrorists. The very next day, suicide bombers attacked a military convoy, killing six soldiers and dozens of civilians. These attacks have rattled the country.
They have also revealed the Taliban’s strategy. The Taliban’s goal is to delegitimize the Pakistani state – to render it incapable of protecting foreign aid workers, local civilians, and even the highest ranks of the military. In truth, the state is already a weak institution, hobbled by corruption. Meanwhile, the intelligence services, thoroughly infiltrated by Taliban sympathizers who owe the jihadists their tribal or religious loyalties, are unreliable.
The result is a no-win for Pakistan’s beleaguered civilian leadership. If they attempt to make peace with the Taliban, they look weak. If they fight back, they alienate many of the security forces that keep them in power. Lacking the normal civilian controls over the armed forces that we in the West take for granted, the government has essentially turned over control of the campaign to the military.
Thus far, the military is pressing the attack into the Meshud region of the South Waziristan province. The area is the tribal homeland of the new Pakistani Taliban leader, Hakimullah Meshud, and the last Taliban leader, Baitullah Meshud, killed three months ago by an American air strike. The Pakistani military claims that 28,000 troops are pushing into the region, where they face perhaps as many as 15,000 Taliban troops and allies. Air strikes and artillery barrages are battering Taliban positions, which have been reinforced by the influx of thousands of al-Qaeda fighters from Afghanistan and other Pakistani provinces. Despite the resistance, the Pakistani military claims that they are ahead of schedule. As things stand, the military is moving to surround towns loyal to the Taliban, as well as to seal off the Afghan border.
The new face of terror: Pakistani Taliban leader Hakimullah Meshud.
There are some early signs of success. Exact numbers are elusive, but approximately 75 militants are reported dead, compared to just a handful of Pakistani soldiers. The offensive has also destroyed some of the Taliban’s weapons caches and disrupted their freedom of movement. Resistance has so far been underwhelming. For the first time in months, the Taliban has been knocked on the defensive.
Still, it has to be asked what the military hopes to accomplish. For instance, the limited nature of the Taliban resistance may not be a favorable indicator: It could mean that the Taliban have once again chosen to simply melt away into the local civilian population, harass the army with ambushes and attacks on supply lanes, and simply wait them out. They can then return at a time of their choosing to further humiliate the central government.
In the meantime, the military’s use of heavy firepower is alienating the local population – exactly the people who need to be won over in order for any counter-insurgency effort to succeed. The Pakistani government, despite words of praise from NATO and supportive visits from American dignitaries, remains largely powerless, caught between an implacable insurgency and increasingly impatient officials in Washington. President Obama’s desperate hope to begin winding down operations in Afghanistan would be fatally undermined by the collapse of Pakistan, and even Iran is now starting to blame Pakistan for spreading instability.
Time will tell whether the Pakistani Taliban can be defeated, or whether the military will succeed only in earning a short reprieve for the central government. But for all the hopes invested in the latest offensive, it is worth bearing in mind that Pakistan has been here before – in fact, just a few short months ago.
Matt Gurney is an Assistant Editor for Comment and columnist at Canada’s National Post. He writes and speaks on geopolitical and military issues in the Toronto-area.