Page last updated at 12:52 GMT, Friday, 15 May 2009 13:52 UK

Swat offensive heads for climax

Tank in north-western Pakistan
The army says it wants the Taleban leadership to be 'completely eliminated'

By M Ilyas Khan
BBC News, Islamabad

The conflict in Pakistan's north-western region of Swat appears to be heading towards street-to-street battles between the army and militants in Mingora, the area's largest urban centre.

While the army envisages such a scenario in the coming days, history shows that Taleban militants have often melted into the civilian population and disappeared.

They have also avoided situations where the entire civilian population vacates an area, leaving them fully exposed to government forces.

Some indications of the army's approach to the conflict were evident in the remarks by the top army spokesman, Major-General Athar Abbas, at a news conference in Islamabad on Wednesday.

Militant response?

"Our aim is to prevent as many militants as we can from slipping out of Mingora," he said.

The plan, he said, was to take them on "in a street-to-street fight".

For this to happen, the military would need most of the civilian population to get out of the way.

It has relaxed a curfew a number of times over the last few days to facilitate such an exodus, and has issued specific advisories to people of certain areas to leave their homes.

Only God can save the militants this time
Brigadier (Rtd) Mehmood Shah

It is difficult to assess how the militants will respond to this tactic.

They have so far maintained a strong position in the area both by design and default.

Over the last couple of years they have successfully targeted the local administrative and policing infrastructure, causing significant deterioration.

This, in turn, has given them broader social control over the local population.

Storm of protest

But they have also not been dislodged because the army's attempts to remove them from their strongholds have largely backfired amid a high level of civilian casualties and the destruction of property.

Alleged Taleban flogging in NW Pakistan
The Taleban have alienated themselves from many people

But this may now be changing, say analysts.

The current operation comes against the backdrop of two significant developments that have created a storm of protests against the Taleban.

The first was a video of a Swat girl being flogged in public which emerged in late March.

Then came remarks by the cleric, Maulana Sufi Mohammad, the man who brokered the failed peace deal between the government and the Swat militants.

He caused consternation by saying that Pakistan's democracy and its judicial system were un-Islamic.

These two developments sparked protests not only by civil society groups, but also helped pave political opinion against the Taleban.

The current military action comes amid mounting international pressure as well as domestic pressure on the army to show results.

And there are indications that it may finally be taking the problem more seriously than it has in the past.

Defence analysts say the current deployment in Swat suggests that the military has thrown a strong outer cordon with a view to trapping militants and luring them into hand-to-hand fighting.

Tacit army backing?

"The first deployment was in the remote Peochar valley where the Taleban leadership is holed up, and afterwards they have deployed troops to the north and south of the main theatre which includes Matta, Kabal and Mingora," says Brigadier (Rtd) Mehmood Shah, a former security chief of the north-western Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata).

Dispaced people in Swat
The Taleban have been unable or unwilling to stop the exodus

"From their current positions, the army is advancing on selected areas to effect a three-way link-up of forces somewhere in the centre of the theatre," he says.

"Only God can save the militants this time."

But there are those who firmly believe the militants could not have gained as much power as they have without clandestine support of the army.

These observers are still cautious in admitting that the military may actually wipe out what some see as a foreign policy asset which took decades to create and which fights as proxies of Pakistan in Afghanistan and India.

A military official with access to communication intercepts by the military says many Taleban fighters are planning to slip out of the area.

The chief concern of the Swat militants is that their colleagues from Central Asia and the Middle East do not get caught.

"Some intercepts indicate that these foreign militants might attempt to leave the area disguised as women, accompanied by children," he said.

Blocking exit

Reports earlier in the week suggested that Taleban were discouraging people from leaving their areas by blocking their exit at some checkpoints in the main theatre of war.

But they have failed to stop the deluge of refugees that has followed during the subsequent days.

Still, thousands of civilians are expected to be in the area when and if the endgame begins.

Will the army's operation against the militants be thwarted due to the presence of these civilians?

Will the militants melt into the civilian population and get out of the area without a fight, as has happened before?

Given the myriad uncertainties in this part of the world, there is no guarantee against any of these developments.

Maj-Gen Abbas, while laying down the parameters for success in Swat, said at Wednesday's briefing, "we would consider that the objectives have been achieved when the militant leadership... has been completely eliminated and... their return obviated."

But many argue that the government should only be happy when Maulana Fazlullah, the top leader of Swat militants, and some of his top commanders have either been killed or captured.


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