Swat a beauty and a beast
by Salim Mansur
Swat Valley in northern Pakistan is a great distance away from Canada and unless one has visited this region, as I did several years ago, neither words nor pictures can convey the beauty of this part of the world to outsiders.
The terrible conflict now raging in this idyllic valley with Pakistani soldiers seeking to contain Taliban fighters from advancing towards the capital, affects Canadian interests as part of the NATO mission in Afghanistan.
The intensity of this conflict is revealing of the extent to which there is a fallout between Pakistan's army and the Taliban movement, nurtured by the highly secretive and powerful Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) for more than a quarter century.
Swat is the area north of Waziristan, or the Federal Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan, on the border of Afghanistan.
It is also the southern approach to the Gilgit Agency sitting astride the strategic Karakoram Highway, going over the 'roof of the world' into China.
In spring 2006 Gen. Pervez Musharraf, then Pakistan's military president, quietly conceded FATA's control to Taliban forces after the army suffered many casualties in the nearly four-year-long, faint-hearted effort to enforce Islamabad's authority over the region.
Since the overthrow of Mullah Omar's Taliban regime in Kabul in 2001 and the routing of al-Qaida out of Afghanistan, FATA became the refuge of the Afghan Taliban forces and what remained of al-Qaida and its depleted leadership.
It is important to keep in mind that distinctions between Afghan Taliban and their Pakistani counterparts barely make sense on the ground, given the close relationship among the tribal people on both sides of the international boundary known as the Durand Line.
The remote FATA is the likely key to eventually bringing the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan to an end. As the resurrected base of al-Qaida forces in the region, it is the gathering place of Islamist warriors from central Asia that will require dismantling.
With the new Obama administration in Washington, the pressure on the new civilian administration of President Asif Ali Zardari in Islamabad, to sweep FATA clean of al-Qaida-Taliban terrorists mounted.
It is likely the fight in Swat Valley is a diversionary tactic of the Taliban forces pre-empting the anticipated move of the Pakistan army into FATA, while threatening to sever Pakistan's strategically important road link to China.
Meanwhile Taliban leaders have thrown the gauntlet at their former masters in Islamabad by sending suicide bombers into cities across Pakistan. This is a page taken out of the insurrectionary tactics of al-Qaida forces under the once vicious command of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq during 2005-06.
In Iraq the superior counter-insurgency tactics of the American forces and the surge that former president George W. Bush ordered in early 2007, defeated the al-Qaida-led insurgency.
The situation in Pakistan is different.
On paper it remains a sovereign country and it is an important ally of the West.
American military support in defeating the Taliban insurgency might well be critical, but the heavy lifting will have to be borne by the Pakistani military.
The conflict raging in Swat and its spillover into the country below will test the resolve of Pakistan's military and people, in defeating a homegrown insurrection that will be increasingly divisive and costly.