x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Long fight ahead in Swat valley

Pakistani commander hopes three-month operation will prevent regional militants from uniting.

Pakistani soldiers stand guard on top of a mountain overlooking the Swat valley at Banai Baba Ziarat  in north-west Pakistan.
Pakistani soldiers stand guard on top of a mountain overlooking the Swat valley at Banai Baba Ziarat in north-west Pakistan.

BANAI BABA ZIARAT // Craters, foxholes and caves pock the top of the ridge above the tree-line at Banai Baba Ziarat. Brig Suba Khan, 50, an old-fashioned officer who remains with his men at night on the heights, led the force that captured the ridge from Taliban militants two days ago. It took him and his men two days to battle up the steep ridge from three directions under heavy fire. "We had three fatalities," he said. "There were 70 to 80 militants left who contested our assault. It was a simple case of infantry tactics - fire and move." Talking to a group of journalists who were ferried here in a military helicopter, Maj Gen Sajjad Ghani, the commanding officer in upper Swat, said: "This was a symbol for them. It was a hub with communications antennae and a command-and-control centre." Army video footage recorded before the assault showed militants swarming near tents they had apparently pitched on the ridge. The view from the ridge revealed Swat's lush valley surrounded by tiers of steep hills behind which rise the snowcapped mountains of the Hindu Kush. At 2,286 metres, the ridge commands the main valley of Swat and its surrounding mountains and passes. The footage also demonstrated how much more work the Pakistani army has left to do in Swat. To the west lay Peochar, an upland valley where the militants have their main stronghold. Airborne commandos landed on its high points last week to prepare for a ground assault that is presently inching its way past the mouth of the valley. To the east lay Malam Jabba, once a famous ski resort, replete with a ski lift, now under the control of the Taliban. Kalam and Bahrain lay to the far north. Last week villagers tried to repel militants with whom they are now locked in a standoff. The villagers are short of food and medicine. Mingora, Swat's main town, lay to the south. The army had already cleared a nearby militant stronghold at Matta. Yesterday, troops entered the town and engaged militants in urban warfare. The army spokesman, Maj Gen Athar Abbas, said at least 17 militants have been killed in the offensive over the past 24 hours. But three more "troublesome valleys" remain in the Taliban's control. Far below Banai Baba Ziarat, on the valley floor at Khwazakhela, the army is in control of a seemingly idyllic countryside. Lines of trees divide up neat fields of fruit trees bearing peach, apricot and persimmon. Fields of maize will soon provide a tall screen that militants can use to screen their movements. Brig Ajab, a cigar aficionado and the local commander who has been posted at Khwazakhela for 18 months, explained why the militants nicknamed him "Sur Kafir" or "Red Infidel". "Because here we have managed to keep control, to make sure CD shops stayed open and that schools were running," he said. The Taliban have said he will "not leave Swat alive". Army officers said they hoped that the town was a model for Swat. Maj Gen Ghani said: "The people of Swat have seen the true face of the Taliban. Today they stand isolated here and in the valley and at the national level. This is a big achievement. "We must eliminate them and finish them off in the valley once and for all." The general said five per cent to 10 per cent of upper Swat's population of 300,000 has fled Swat, and the number is far greater in the densely populated south. The United Nations estimates that more than one million people have fled Swat since the fighting began this month. In his area of command the general estimated that his forces are fighting 2,000 to 3,000 militants. "But already young recruits have been persuaded by our operations to return to their homes. There is a fair chance they will not return to terrorism," he said. "While the foot soldiers are brainwashed with an incorrect Islam. The commanders' design is to hold political space." From Nov 2007 until a ceasefire ended last month, the army and government had agreed to a number of ceasefires and peace deals. During the last peace deal, the government had ceded to militant demands for the implementation of Sharia, but instead of laying down their arms, the militants marched into Swat's neighbouring districts. "The government now has sufficient experience of negotiations already," Maj Gen Ghani said. Army officers described the "deceitful role" they claim that the local administration played in shielding and abetting the Taliban. They accused Mohammed Javed, a former commissioner, of allowing the Taliban to retake the heights in the neighbouring district of Buner by persuading a local militia to abandon it. Col Abdul Rehman recalled picking up a notorious commander, who was laden with weaponry, during the last ceasefire. But Mr Javed secured his release. "I have lost 31 soldiers. It made me feel very bad to have to release a militant leader. My soldiers asked why we did not kill him," he said. Col Rehman added that because of one of the conditions of the ceasefire he was forced to release 365 militants. "Now they are all fighting," he said. The army is targeting Swat's Taliban leader, Mullah Fazlullah. "He has moved from place to place. We have mounted a raid and air attacks targeting him. I think it is a question of time before we get him. I am reasonably sure he is still in Swat," Maj Gen Ghani said. The general hoped that a drawn-out operation, which he envisaged taking up to three months, would prevent Swat's militants from uniting under al Qa'eda or more powerful Afghan Taliban. Officers acknowledged key difficulties. "The Taliban shaves off his beard and lays down his weapon, he is then an ordinary citizen. The enemy is faceless," the general said. "There is a possibility that militants will melt into the mountains, but the hardcore element want to fight it out." When he was asked whether his men have a problem fighting fellow Pakistanis, he said: "Never do we have a problem because we are fighting criminals and terrorists." But Col Rehman demurred. "It is hard to fight fellow Pakistanis. We take extra care to make sure they are the enemy. Fighting an insurgency in your own country is hell." For the time being, the bulk of the country supports the operation in Swat. "It feels as if their nation is at our back supporting us, morally and legally. As a soldier you feel great. "Now everyone has realised the threat," the colonel said. iwilkinson@thenational.ae