x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

As military advances, Taliban threat rises

Ongoing military operations in Swat Valley are expected to provoke more revenge attacks like the one that killed at least 20 people in Lahore this week.

ISLAMABAD // Ongoing military operations in Swat Valley are expected to provoke more revenge attacks like the one that killed at least 20 people in Lahore this week, analysts and security experts say, urging the intelligence agencies to step up their monitoring of militant cells. "I don't believe the terrorists' claim that they can mount attacks across Pakistan but they will certainly target the major cities," said Lt Gen Kamal Matinuddin, a retired army officer and military analyst. "What is the requirement of the moment is that the intelligence agencies must more effectively penetrate their training facilities - they must know where they are as it is established they are in the madrasas," he said. The military claims to have killed nearly 1,200 militants, out of a force of 4,000 to 5,000, and lost 75 soldiers during the fighting in Swat and neighbouring districts that began last month. Most analysts estimate the army's losses to be higher. No figure has been given for civilian casualties. The Taliban claimed responsibility for Wednesday's attack, in which a suicide squad opened fire near the headquarters of the Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI), the country's main spy agency, before detonating a car bomb that killed more than 20 people and injured nearly 300. Hakimullah Mehsud, an aide of Pakistan's Taliban chief, Baitullah Mehsud, said the attack was retaliation for the operations in Swat. Between Nov 2007 and the end of April, the government agreed to several ceasefires with militants in Swat. In April the government ceded to their demands for the implementation of Sharia law as part of a peace deal. But instead of laying down their arms, the Taliban marched into Swat's neighbouring districts of Buner and Lower Dir. The current military operation is the most concerted effort to date to roll back the Taliban insurgency, with its most notable victory being the wresting of control of Swat's main town, Mingora, from the militants. Yesterday, senior officers said the military controlled 60 per cent to 70 per cent of the town and that only "pockets of resistance" ­remained. Brig Tahir Hamid, the commander of forces in Mingora, told journalists how his men had hunkered down in the city before being joined by reinforcements who approached the town in a three-pronged pincer movement. Troops faced suicide attacks, roadside bombs and ambushes as they cleared the nearby town of Matta. On May 23 they entered Mingora. Fighting house to house, the army has retaken most of it, including "Bloody Square", where the Taliban dumped the mutilated bodies of their victims. Corpses of turbaned Taliban are now lying in the streets. The brigadier said his men had killed about 286 militants in the town alone. He expects to hand over Mingora to civilian authorities within a week. But some analysts have suggested that the Taliban retreated too quickly for the army to call it a victory. As yet, no senior Taliban leader has been killed and the insurgents appear to have a seemingly fathomless number of suicide bombers and gunmen at their disposal. Since the Swat operation began, militants have launched six suicide attacks. On May 22 a suicide attacker killed seven people and wounded 80 outside a Peshawar cinema. Analysts warned that the real cost of the operation might have only just surfaced. "It is worrying and a matter of concern that they targeted security agencies and also in the heart of Lahore," said Ikram Sehgal, a security expert. "The possibility of more attacks cannot be ruled out because the Taliban have suffered badly in Swat. They are surrounded," he said. Mohammed Amir Rana, an expert on Pakistani militant groups with the Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies, said the attack on the ISI office in Lahore would have been viewed as a significant victory by the terrorists because it was the agency's provincial headquarters. "The message is very strong and that is that whoever is involved or has a role in the ongoing military operation in Swat, they would be targeted," he said. Southern Punjab is one of Pakistan's most impoverished and neglected areas and home to some of Pakistan's most violent extremist groups. In Swat, there are three more "troublesome valleys" that remain under Taliban control and fighters have dug into Kabal, an urban lair. The army says victory will be declared when the civilian administration is back in place and the internally displaced are home. But Major Gen Sajjad Ghani, a commander in Swat, worries about how the government will tackle the "deprivation, poverty and injustice" that originally fuelled the insurgency. Senior officials question whether an emergency should be declared in the entire North West Frontier Province. The army is planning to extend operations to the border tribal badlands of Waziristan. iwilkinson@thenational.ae