Peshawar, Pakistan One year ago, this frontier city and its surrounding districts were under siege by the Taliban.
But things here have changed dramatically over the last 12 months in ways helpful to the U.S. effort in Afghanistan. The Pakistani armed forces have undertaken a major anti-Taliban offensive in nearby areas along the Afghan border.
Some U.S. officials and experts contend that Pakistan’s military is playing a double game — attacking Pakistani Taliban groups that threaten the state, while avoiding Afghan Taliban with whom it has long ties, and whom it views as crucial to peace talks in Afghanistan.
Yet this argument overlooks how much the Pakistani military’s attitude toward the Afghan Taliban has also changed (which I’ll write more about in a subsequent column). And it distracts attention from its impressive gains on the ground.
“You have to give them a lot of credit for what they have done,” a senior U.S. official told me, referring to the Pakistani military. “They definitely are shrinking the safe havens inside Pakistan.”
In his headquarters within the historic Bala Hisar Fort, Maj. Gen. Tariq Khan, the straight-talking commander of Pakistan’s Frontier Corps, told me, “A year ago, NATO convoy routes were threatened, 50 people had been kidnapped ... and the Taliban had taken Dir and were entering Buner,” only 60 miles from the capital, Islamabad. The historic valley of Swat was under Taliban rule, and the militants seemed unstoppable.
But then the Pakistani Taliban overreached and violated a peace deal with the government. Public opinion, which had viewed the battle against the Taliban as America’s war, turned against the militants.
The military and Frontier Corps first cleared Swat and other tribal areas, then conducted a major offensive in South Waziristan, destroying the Taliban’s bases, heavy weapons, and communications. Many fighters and key leaders fled to North Waziristan, but U.S. Predator drone strikes (for which Pakistan covertly provides intelligence) have badly hurt their ranks.
“The basic fear is gone,” said Malik Naveed Khan, inspector general of the police in the North-West Frontier Province (recently renamed Khyber-Pakhtoonkhwa in a bow to Pashtun pride). People are listening to music and dancing at festivities again — activities that were banned under the Taliban — and a local university even held a big fashion show last week.
As the military clears more areas, “the people get more confident, and tribal elders get lashkars going,” Gen. Khan said, referring to tribal self-defense forces that are now being raised by the thousands.
The fight is far from over. A pile of twisted metal marks the spot where militants attacked the U.S. consulate in Peshawar last week. And the public is still soft on Afghan Taliban and the increasingly dangerous militants who target India over Kashmir.
Yet the overall shift in public attitudes toward these Pakistani jihadis seems irreversible. It reflects a revulsion at suicide bombings and the harsh tactics of the Taliban. Pakistani officials note that 2,677 law enforcement officers and 5,288 civilians from Swat and the tribal areas have died in the fighting since 2007.
So some patience is merited when Pakistanis push back against U.S. pressure for them to open another front in North Waziristan and take out the leaders of the Haqqani network of Afghan Taliban, who use that area as a haven from which to attack eastern Afghan provinces. The Pakistanis say they don’t have the resources yet to open another front. (They have already moved about 100,000 troops designated for the eastern Indian front to their western border.)
“Which state would bypass militant ogres who is directly attacking us and go for someone who is not?” asked Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, the military’s spokesman. Abbas insists that, given the interconnections between all of the Taliban groups, progress against Pakistani Taliban benefits the international community as well.
He says Pakistan is trying to “shape” the battlefield in North Waziristan by clearing adjacent tribal regions and doing small, targeted operations. Meantime, cooperation between U.S. and Pakistani forces on both sides of the Afghan border, while imperfect, is growing.
Some Pakistani analysts believe their military, in the end, will have no choice but to conduct a major clearing operation in the area. In the meantime, let’s be thankful that Taliban overreach pushed Pakistan to take on its own jihadis. Destroying some Taliban networks helps undercut them all.