The Pakistani army’s operation in the Swat Valley is the most serious in five years of selective counterinsurgency against the local Taliban. The scale of the campaign, and of the humanitarian catastrophe it has unleashed, is immense. In two weeks, more than a million civilians have fled the fighting, with tens of thousands in tent cities on torrid plains. Some 15,000 soldiers–including commandos–are battling 5,000 guerrillas in mountain redoubts or in heavily mined cities like Mingora.
The war is the fruit of a failed peace process, backed by the army and civilian government but decried by the United States as an “abdication” that allowed insurgents to move within sixty-two miles of Islamabad. But is it a change? Or is it a continuation of old Pakistani-US strategies that have failed in the past?
President Barack Obama says it’s a change. “Over the last several weeks we’ve seen a decided shift in the Pakistan army’s recognition that the threat from extremism is a much more immediate and serious one than the threat from India that they’ve traditionally focused on,” he told Newsweek on May 13. Obama has skillfully convinced Congress that guerrillas on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border pose a “mortal threat” to the homeland, to America’s losing war in Afghanistan and to its precarious, nuclear-tipped “ally” in Islamabad. On May 14 the House approved $1.9 billion in aid to Pakistan, $591 million more than requested–most of which was tagged to civilian governance rather than military hardware. Coupled with the May 19 pledge of $110 million in emergency relief, the bill triples civilian aid to Pakistan, supplying ballast to a government Washington knows is keeling from several storms.
The aid comes despite reports that Pakistan is expanding its nuclear arsenal and that its intelligence agency is “playing both sides” in Afghanistan. It also feeds a growing misperception in the Western media and among policy analysts that the Taliban and Al Qaeda are about to topple a nuclear state.
Yet it is incoherent. For Obama is also killing Pakistanis at a faster rate than Bush did. Sixteen Predator strikes on alleged Al Qaeda fugitives have crashed into the tribal areas this year, the latest on May 16 killing thirty people, including tribal militants, women and children. The relentless drone attacks have wiped out whatever good will Obama hoped to gain with the aid.
Refugees–caught between Taliban snipers and army choppers–say “dozens” of corpses lie unburied in fields or piled up in canals. A steady stream of soldiers are flown to military hospitals in Peshawar every day. “It’s our war. It was imposed on us. That’s why we have to fight it,” said 23-year-old commando Nadir Khan, hit by sniper fire within four hours of his first skirmish.
This sentiment is new. Pakistanis have historically been hostile to military campaigns against the Taliban, casting them as “America’s war.” But most support the Swat offensive. More remarkably, so does Pakistan’s main opposition party, electronic media and many Islamic leaders. For this “shift in recognition” Obama can thank the Taliban.