Winning: The Taliban Strike Back


February 27, 2011:  In Pakistan, the Taliban are fighting back, and have used some innovative tactics to get the army to back off. As a result, deaths from terrorism related action were 7,435 in 2010, versus 11,585 in 2009. There's also a few thousand deaths from other forms of religious and ethnic strife. But those don't count because that sort of thing has been going on for generations.

Most of the drop in terrorist related deaths was from a reduction in fighting in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (formerly the Northwest Frontier Province.) Taliban efforts to move into the Khyber area, not considered a "tribal" area (even though most of the population are Pushtun tribals) brought forth a major and sustained response from the army. And in this area, the Taliban lost. Terrorism related deaths fell from 5,497 in 2009 to 1,202 last year. Most Taliban fled back to the adjacent FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas), the heart of the tribal territories. Deaths went up in Baluchistan (from 277 to 347) and stayed about the same where most of the population is (Punjab and Sind), where there were 507 deaths in 2009 and 488 last year.

The Taliban maintained their refuge in FATA's North Waziristan, where the government said it would advance, but still has not. Baluchistan is still a refuge for the Afghan Taliban, but not the Pakistani Taliban. Most Pakistani counter-terror activity is in Punjab and Sind, and there Taliban and Islamic terror group efforts to expand were, if not stopped, slowed down a lot.

In FATA, the Taliban has kept the army and police off-balance by sending suicide bombers against police stations, military bases and civilian targets. The security forces are better protected, and often stop the bomber before they can get to the target. That often means the bomber detonating the explosives among civilians who happen to be in the vicinity. The civilian targets have much less security. Since last year, most of the terror attack deaths have been civilians. This makes the terrorists less popular, and reduces support for them. Terror groups never seem to grasp this, and cling to the idea that their attacks will intimidate the population and government into surrendering. That very rarely happens. But when you have a lot of people willing to die for their cause (or convince others to do so), it's the most newsworthy thing you can do. The mass media eat this stuff up, and are willing to take the terrorists seriously as long as the body count remains high.

The big surprise, at least for the soldiers and police from the lowlands of Punjab and Sind, is that the fierce tribesmen are not nearly as dangerous as their reputation. The Pushtun tribes have been slaughtering lowlanders for thousands of years. But the army has found that their new tactics, which emphasize heavy use of artillery, helicopters and F-16s carrying smart bombs, has rendered the tribesmen much less lethal. The tribal warriors are still fierce, but as long as the soldiers are careful with their own security and scouting, the tribesmen die in far larger numbers than the troops. Using this firepower has its drawbacks. For one thing, it's expensive (especially the fuel for the F-16s and helicopters). But this death from above tends to be indiscriminate, causing lots of civilian casualties. Worst of all, many more civilians simply flee the area. This is also expensive, as the government has to set up camps and support millions of refugees. About three million civilians fled the fighting in the tribal territories in the last two years, and most have now returned home.

The Taliban can't move freely around the tribal territories, even in North Waziristan. That's because the CIA fleet of missile armed UAVs patrols the air above, and regularly locates and kills Taliban and Islamic terrorist leaders. Efforts to move terrorist operations outside the tribal territories have been spotty, mainly because so many people in Punjab and Sind will report the presence of Islamic terror groups. It's not exactly a stalemate, but the terrorists can't expand, are not being wiped out, and the army doesn't want to force the issue to a conclusion.





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