India-Pakistan: Taliban Head For The Hills


May 12, 2009:  The Taliban have been successful in slowing the Pakistani army down by using civilians as human shields. The Pakistani troops use artillery and air power a lot, and shells and bombs can't tell Taliban from civilians. Infantry can, but the army commanders don't want to take a lot of casualties by fighting the Taliban head-to-head. So far, nearly half the 1.2 million people in the 5,400 square kilometer Swat valley have fled.  The army has committed about 125,000 troops to fighting the Taliban, who have a few thousand armed men in Swat and adjacent districts. But Swat is a river valley, and as the troops advance up it, the Taliban eventually flee to villages in the adjacent mountains. And if the soldiers come up there, the Taliban go over the mountains, back into tribal territory. The most lethal weapons the army has are their helicopters and artillery. The helicopters are armed, but they can also call in artillery fire. This is why the Taliban use human shields, as the Pakistani gunships and artillery will often hold fire if they see women and children with the Taliban gunmen. In a week of fighting, 700 Taliban, and several hundred civilians, have been killed in the Swat fighting. The army has lost fewer than a hundred dead. Pakistani religious leaders have units in opposition to the Taliban, accusing the tribal militants of misusing Islam for personal gain. This is a widely held belief in Pakistan, even within the tribal territories.

The army is moving another division to the tribal territories. The troops will be used to control the roads, via which the Taliban can quickly mobilize thousands of gunmen. There are lots of trucks (large and small), SUVs and cars in the tribal territories, and the Taliban have come to depend on this mobility to mass forces in an area they wish to dominate (by outnumbering the local police and tribal militias). Without access to the roads, the Taliban have to move the old fashioned way, on foot or horseback along trails and ridgelines. This takes 10-15 times longer, and leaves the Taliban vulnerable to attack from the air. The army strategy is based on ancient practice. The Pushtun tribesmen will stop fighting when you kill enough of them. This has worked for thousands of years. The only problem is that the tribesmen will fight back, and the Pakistani generals still fear mutinies because 20 percent of their troops are recruited from the tribal (mostly Pushtun, but also Baluchi) territories. So far, this has not been a problem, but sergeants and junior officers have reported some grumbling in the ranks. This has been kept in check by the widespread belief in Pakistan that the Taliban are out to destroy the country. This is not popular with most Pakistanis who, despite the corruption and ineffective government, still prefer a democratic Pakistan to a religious dictatorship dominated by tribal clerics.

May 11, 2009: A Taliban suicide bomber hit a Frontier Corps (FC) check point outside Peshawar, the largest city in the Pakistani tribal territories. Two soldiers and eight civilians were killed. The Frontier Corps is locally recruited, to keep the peace along the Afghan border. Because of tribal connections, the FC are reluctant to go to war with the Pushtuns.

May 9, 2009: American UAVs fired four Hellfire missiles at Taliban leaders in South Waziristan, killing at least eight people.  In eastern India, Maoist gunmen have been attacking road building crews. The Maoists oppose paved roads because  it makes it harder for them to use anti-vehicle mines. The fighting over this has left 18 dead today. In the last few days, Maoist violence to discourage people from voting has also left over a dozen dead.

May 8, 2009: Taliban fighters are halting civilians who are trying to flee their homes in Swat. The Taliban are apparently going to use the civilians as human shields, a tactic they have used widely in Afghanistan. The Taliban have also expanded their looting, in anticipation of the government advance. For the Pushtun tribesmen who provide most of the Taliban manpower, loot is a big deal. Pushtun lore is full of praise for the warrior who comes home with lots of loot. So the Taliban in Swat are seizing vehicles and preparing to depart if the army shows up and proves impossible to defeat. Pushtun tradition is also about running away from a fight you can't win.

May 6, 2009: In Pakistan, the government ordered over half a million civilians to evacuate their homes in the Swat valley, in preparation for an army offensive against the Taliban forces that have seized control of the area. The army is already moving against Taliban fighters in Buner district, which is just south of Swat, and only a hundred kilometers from the capital, Islamabad. In the last few days of fighting in Buner, several hundred Taliban have been killed as the Islamic radicals are pushed back by the advancing troops.




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