If the situation, 30 years in the making, was so bad before, it can’t be this good now. Not yet anyway.
Though the swing of opinion against the Taliban is a heartening development and boosts the army, the Pakistani people have never strongly favored the Taliban. Their hesitation of war was more a fear of Pakistani on Pakistani bloodshed, especially at the orders of America. Once the Taliban became a greater threat, the Pakistani people began to focus less on American errors. After prioritizing the threats, it’s now popular to hate the Taliban.
America must understand the difference between Pakistan fighting a war of survival and approving of American policy in the region.
Tribal militias, or lashkars, are attracting attention from the Western media and are hailed as a turning point, except lashkars have fought a low intensity conflict with the Taliban for many years without success. The recent uprising against five Taliban-controlled villages in Dhok Darra, Upper Dir, the neighboring district of Swat, is a good story, not necessarily a trend.
Having witnessed the destruction by the Pakistan army in Swat, villagers reportedly decided that they didn’t want to end up in craters too. The solution was to band together and defeat the Taliban so that the army wouldn’t touch their villages. They perceived danger either way, a poor sign for the government.
Pakistan must also be careful how much it uses lashkars to beat back the Taliban’s advances. Vigilantism is frowned upon in many countries, including America, for good reason: it’s dangerous. If the government fails to reinforce these villagers and leaves them defenseless against the Taliban, they could be sitting ducks. The use of lashkars must be coordinated, not erratic.
But Lashkars will likely have little use where the Pakistani army is headed next. Clashes around the Waziristan border have sparked for weeks, starting after Pakistani president Asif Zardari declared the tide of war would roll through Swat and into Waziristan, home of Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan leader Baitullah Mehsud.
If Pakistan decides on total war in Waziristan, the destruction will be incomparable to Swat and its surrounding areas. Swat district is about 3,300 square miles and the fight was mostly contained to the central valley. South Waziristan, Mehsud’s headquarters, is almost 4,500 square miles by itself; North Waziristan adds another 3,000.
That automatically means more Pakistani soldiers, bombs, money, refugees, and time. How long can Pakistan's ailing economy fund a counterinsurgency?
The Pakistan army will certainly face stiffer resistance in Waziristan than in Swat, which was taken over only recently by an estimated 4,000 militants. While the Taliban wants to expand, it might not have seriously intended to control Swat the way it did - its advances may have even surprised itself. The Taliban could always melt out of Swat and back to the Afghan border.
They won’t run in Waziristan, where the Pakistani army is restrained to its bases. For years Mehsud has been building his army in South Waziristan, a state within a state, and was adroitly organized by 2006 according to the Pakistan government. As a tribal chief, he also has more control over the local population.
In sharp contrast to Swat, where he holds less political sway, Mehsud reportedly commands up to 30,000 loyal fighters digging in to fight until the end. If about 15,000 Pakistani soldiers are still engaging 3,000 militants in Swat, 1,000 having been killed, the army will technically need 112, 500 soldiers for Waziristan. Academic, but 30-50,000 Pakistani soldiers have failed numerous times.
Tens of thousands of militants are tunneling into the surrounding agencies at this moment.
Pakistan's positive atmosphere won’t last without equally lasting results. The Swat operation was a success because it succeeded. Had the government failed, it would be facing extreme popular pressure to form another strategy. War in Waziristan will make Swat look like a practice spar and retest the patience and mood of Pakistan.
Momentum is fleeting. If the Pakistan army retreats from Waziristan, its tactics and strategy will once again be scrutinized, as has happened throughout the decade. Public approval could sink and quickly shift the focus - and blame - back to government failures and America’s flawed strategy in Afghanistan.
The Pakistani government has made clear that Waziristan is its end game, and theoretically America’s too since it claims Pakistan is the real problem. Therefore Pakistan’s army must not enter Waziristan until 100% committed, organized, and equipped for a long, brutal war against what will be its toughest foe. The government and army have almost no margin of error compared to Swat.
Airtight strategy must be comprehensively debated and implemented; stalling or failing in Waziristan isn’t an option.