08/07/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

More Clarity Needed About Pakistan's Swat Operation

This article first appeared in the July issue of the Herald, a leading Pakistani monthly covering domestic politics, society and culture

It was on May 7 that Pakistani Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani went on air to inform Pakistanis that the country was now at war. "To restore the honor and dignity of our homeland and to protect our people, the armed forces have been called in to eliminate the militants and terrorists," he said in his special address to the nation. In violation of the government's peace deal with Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi (TNSM) chief Sufi Mohammad, he explained, the Taliban in Swat were still preventing girls from going to school, occupying and damaging private and public property, and refusing to lay down arms against security forces and citizens. Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, the country's main opposition party, and the Awami National Party in power in North West Frontier Province (NWFP) both declared their support for the effort in a rare show of political solidarity.

The next day's Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) press release contained, as expected, an announcement that the army was now going to launch an official attack. "After the complete breakdown of law and order and non-adherence of peace deal by the militants, Army was called in aid of civil power to eliminate militants from Swat Valley," it said on May 8. "On the directive of the Government of Pakistan, Army is now engaged in a full- scale operation to eliminate all anti-state elements from Swat."

But a different story emerged in June, when Pakistani monthly the Herald requested a timeline of the military's progress through the Valley. In reply the ISPR e-mailed a list of areas where operations had been conducted and the dates when these operations took place. In several cases the launch date was listed as April 27, more than 10 days prior to the earlier announced date of May 8. But when asked about this discrepancy, ISPR officials said "troop mobilization" might have started by April 27.

Although not in line with what had been publicly announced, an earlier start in fact seems to make more sense given what was taking place on the ground in the early days of May. The May 8 press release, after announcing the launch of the operation, also went on to say that over 140 militants had been killed in Swat in the last 24 hours. Clashes reportedly took place at, among other places, Khwazakhela and Chamtalai, towns that are about a third of the way into the Valley, on what was ostensibly the first day of Rah-e-Rast. Clearly, then, the operation - or at least preparations for it - had begun well before May 8, and perhaps even before May 3, when the peace deal was seriously damaged by Mohammad's rejection of the Islamic courts set up by the NWFP government and of the two Islamic judges it had appointed as part of the peace deal.

Newspapers had also been reporting on clashes taking place in the Valley in the first few days of the month, and eventually claimed - before May 8 - that a decision had already been made to launch an operation. But official army statements denied, at the time, that such a plan was in place. "Hundreds of people fled Swat's main town of Mingora on Tuesday after the military urged residents to seek safety as fresh fighting with Taliban militants could erupt," daily Dawn reported on May 6. "Witnesses said 'large numbers' of residents fled in panic, although the military swiftly withdrew its evacuation order, saying the government was not ready to authorise an offensive . . . 'We have now suspended this order and people are directed not to vacate their homes because the government has no immediate plan to launch an operation in these areas,' said local military spokesman Major Nasir Khan."

In an effort to reconcile these conflicting timelines, the Herald asked correspondents and military experts when they thought the operation began. "Rah-e-Rast started on May 2 but was not officially announced," says Dawn's Swat correspondent Hameedullah Khan. "The military was deployed and entered on May 3 through Landake check post, the main entrance to the Valley." According to him, residents of Mingora and surrounding areas started to flee on May 2 - the same day the NWFP government announced that Darul Qaza would be established in Malakand - and on May 3 the army's Swat Media Centre declared that curfew had been imposed in the Valley. Reporter Ahsan Dawar, who is covering the region for Voice of America, claims preparations for an operation began in early May, and at least two other Dawn correspondents based in the areas surrounding Swat say it is not clear to them when exactly the operation was launched.

"Militaries always have contingency plans, and in this case the contingency plans were made when they made the peace accord, in case it would fail," says Dr Haroon Qureshi, whose company supplies equipment to the Pakistan military and who has spent time on the ground in Swat. "They had to collect intelligence way in advance through special forces, about where militants would be located and where ambushes would come from, and this is when some of the Special Services Group (SSG) troops were captured and many of them beheaded. That movement had started as early as April 21 or 22." According to ISPR officials, however, it was May 10 when four SSG commandos were beheaded. But Qureshi's remarks also imply that, beyond contingency planning, a more deliberate effort was launched earlier than publicly announced. "In their own mind perhaps they had already decided on April 27 that symptoms indicate that they will have to go in. So advance elements were put in place and some of the troops were already operational on May 2 and 3. The full military thrust started on the May 7 or 8."

It seems logical that an army needs to be positioned for attack in case a key peace agreement falls through, and it is clear that the Taliban were continuing to disrupt the lives of Swatis before Mohammad rejected the government's implementation of their peace deal and Gilani declared that the country was at war. But in the context of three failed operations conducted in Swat since November 2007 that had left locals skeptical about the army's willingness to eliminate the Taliban threat, these discrepancies of just a few days become more significant than perhaps they should be in terms of shaping public perception. Observers and residents say they have more faith in the army this time around, mainly because they can see increased troop numbers and more sophisticated equipment. But lack of clarity regarding the timing of the operation raises questions about the transparency of the operation as a whole. More and clearer information would go a long way towards winning over a still-skeptical public burned by three failed Swat operations in the past.

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