Counter-Terrorism: Create A Desert And Call It Peace

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October 17,2008:  Largely out of the media spotlight, at least in the West, the Pakistani army has taken on the most numerous and aggressive part of the Taliban organization, and is tearing it to pieces. For the last two months, the Pakistani Army has been moving through the Bajaur Agency in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), killing Taliban and al Qaeda fighters who have largely controlled the rural parts of the 1,300 square kilometer district for years. There were only a few thousand armed men working for the Taliban, and several thousand more who have come in since the fighting began. Over a third of these Taliban have been killed or wounded, and they have been driven from one compound (the fortress like groups of houses that are favored in this part of the world) after another. The army has used air power (mostly armed helicopters) and artillery to do most of the killing, using infantry to guard the roads and urban areas. The Taliban have had a hard time moving around, and have not been able to inflict many casualties on the army. Most of the civilian population has fled, as trying to use civilians as human shields does not work against the Pakistani army.

Before the 1960s, even the Pakistan government had little influence in this area. Since then, the government has established a presence in the towns, but not in the hills, where most of the 600,000 people live. The Bajaur Agency (or district) is the northernmost of the seven that comprise FATA. Just across the border is the Afghan province of Kunar. Bajaur is one of those border places that is still claimed by Afghanistan, but that claim has been dormant for decades. Bajaur is about 72 kilometers long and 32 kilometers wide. Before the Khyber pass (to the south) got its roads fixed up, and became the principal border crossing, the road up the Bajaur valley and across the two passes, was one of the principal ways to go from Kabul to the Pakistani lowlands.

The Pushtun Tarkani tribe dominates Bajaur, and most of the clans are friendly to the Taliban clause. This goes back to the 1980s, when Bajaur hosted several hundred thousand Afghan refugees, who had fled from the invading Russians. Bajaur became one of the base areas, where American and Saudi money went to arm and equip Afghans who returned again and again to raid the Russians. In late 2001, hundreds of Afghan Taliban and al Qaeda members fled to, or through, Bajaur. Since then, Bajaur has been a hideout of the Taliban and al Qaeada.

Over the last six years, several efforts by the government, to negotiate a deal with tribal leaders, to help halt Taliban operations (mainly recruiting and support for attacks across the border in Afghanistan) have failed. Last Summer, the pro-Taliban clans moved to drive out Pakistani officials and police. The army decided to resist, rather than abandon Bajaur. The Taliban fought back, but with little success.

The Pakistanis believe Bajaur will be a decisive battle for the Taliban, or at least the Pakistani Taliban. Al Qaeda and the Taliban seem to agree, as both organizations have been calling for reinforcements from Pakistan and Afghanistan. It's not easy to get into Bajaur, with the army controlling the skies, and most of the roads. The army believes they will have crushed the Taliban and al Qaeda forces in Bajaur by the end of the year, or next Spring at the latest. The army is better equipped to operate during the Winter, and army casualties have been low (keeping morale up). But it's not a sure thing. The Taliban fighters are willing to fight to the death, and have a psychological advantage over the army (most of the troops come from the lowlands). But outsiders have conquered Bajaur before. Alexander the Great did it 2,500 years ago, and the Mongols did so 700 years ago. But in both cases, conquest was accomplished in the Roman fashion ("they created a desert and called it peace.") But in many respects, the army is going old-school on the Taliban, with most of the civilians fleeing, and any resistance getting blasted to rubble. When victory comes, it will be celebrated in a depopulated desert of rubble and empty homes.

 


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