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Pakistan Claims of Success Against Taliban Unverified


With outside observers barred from getting near the fighting, it is difficult to accurately assess the effectiveness of Pakistani army operations against the Taliban in northern Pakistan. Some independent observers believe the army may be inflating its claims of success and that some of the Taliban militants have slipped out of the area. There are concerns that the Taliban could even threaten the key artery between Pakistan and China.

Since it launched its offensive against the Taliban in northern Pakistan, the army said it has killed scores of militants and won back large chunks of territory. But verifying government claims of success has proved extremely difficult, if not impossible. Communications to affected portions of the Swat Valley and surrounding areas have been cut, and the army will not allow journalists independently into the conflict zone.

Larry Goodson, a national security studies professor at the U.S. Army War College, says some of the government's claims may be inflated.

"I frankly think that some of the engagement that has happened in some of those other places has been a mixture of sort of slash and burn tactics - I mean just sort of destroy everything in a village - mixed in with smoke and mirrors - 'yes, we're killing lots of Taliban here' when in fact there's no journalists or independent observers there to verify in fact that's going on," he said.

To assess what is going on, military analysts are looking at the tactics and results achieved in military operations in the Bajaur Agency of the North-West Frontier Province. That operation began last year and the army says it was cleansed of Taliban three months ago.

Shaun Gregory is head of the Pakistan Security Research Unit at the University of Bradford in Britain. He says the army's tactics in Swat and adjacent areas mirror the so-called standoff tactics used against the militants in Bajaur.

"When I look at what's going on in Buner, in Dir, in Swat, it looks to me pretty similar. They're using a lot of artillery, a lot of helicopters, a lot of air strikes, they have more troops on the ground, and I know there has been quite heavy fighting in one or two areas," he explained. "But, broadly, you're seeing the same thing - a lot of towns and villages destroyed, significant population driven out. It therefore does not surprise me that they have left gaps, if you like, in terms of what they're trying to do," he said.

Analysts believe those gaps have allowed some of the Taliban to escape the combat area. The Army War College's Larry Goodson says that is what happened in Bajaur. But, he adds, they do not all appear to be heading back west to the Federally Administered Tribal Areas that directly border Afghanistan.

"The exits were allowed to be open and guys were able to filter on out. And I think we're seeing the same out of Swat right now. And there have been rumors that not all of that filtering out has been back out to the west to Bajaur and Dir and those areas, Mohmand, but have been in some parts east and north," said Goodson.

Heading east for rest and refuge, say analysts, would place at least some of the Taliban fighters in areas adjoining the Karakoram Highway.

The Karakoram Highway, also known as the Friendship Highway, is a 1300 kilometer road that runs north and south from just outside Islamabad to Kashgar in China's Xinjiang province. An engineering marvel that rises to its highest point at the 4800 meter high Khunjerab Pass, it is a vital artery for Sino-Pakistani trade.

Shaun Gregory says Chinese concern about a possible threat to the highway was as much of a factor in Islamabad's decision to take on the Taliban in Swat as was U.S. pressure about terrorism.

"In fact, my understanding that one of the reasons the army went into this war in the first place was some Chinese pressure because China has been worried about the creeping militant influence on the Karakoram Highway. Everybody reads this as a threat to Islamabad and American pressure, but actually the third segment of that is China's concern about its own influence, much of which flows through Karakoram one or another," he said.

Militants have blown up bridges or convoys carrying supplies to NATO troops in Afghanistan on the road that runs westward from Peshawar and winds through the critical but vulnerable Khyber Pass.

Larry Goodson says any Taliban move against the Karakoram Highway would dramatically raise the stakes in the ongoing struggle in Pakistan.

"If they were to interdict the KKH [Karakoram Highway] the Pakistani government would then have to engage them in way more serious than they have done before in Waziristan or Swat or Bajaur or any of these other places," he said. "That's really going after high-level government targets. It's threatening a strategic asset of the state, and, moreover, it's threatening one that the Chinese care a great deal about," Goodson added.

But so far there have been no reported attempts to interdict the Karakoram Highway. Analysts believe the Taliban could probably interdict the highway periodically at selected chokepoints, but that they would not be able to hold it.

Nevertheless, concern remains. The British Foreign Office issued a travel warning May 14 urging foreigners to fly up to Gilgit - a destination popular with world-class mountain climbers - rather than going by highway. The notice said that parts of the Karakoram Highway between Islamabad and Gilgit are extremely hostile to foreigners.

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