Asia Crisis

ANALYSIS-Pakistan's Swat offensive risks wider backlash

* Swat offensive will spark Taliban retaliation elsewhere

* Punjab and Sindh provinces seen as susceptible areas

* Stronger Pakistan police crucial to counter-insurgency

LONDON, May 12 (Reuters) - Pakistan's heavy-handed offensive against the Taliban in northwest Pakistan is misguided and risks further destabilising the country, western military and intelligence experts argue.

By throwing up to 15,000 troops and heavy weaponry against an estimated 5,000 Taliban in Swat, a valley northwest of Islamabad, the Pakistan army may make short-term gains, but it increases the likelihood of terror-style attacks on targets in more stable areas of eastern Pakistan in the longer-term.

While the army essentially had no choice but to go on the offensive after the Taliban broke a peace accord and the U.S. administration piled on pressure for action, the broader strategy needs overhauling, the analysts say.

"On this occasion, the Pakistan army has accepted that the breach of the Swat agreement by the Taliban did in fact represent a threat which it couldn't overlook or fail to respond to," said Nigel Inkster, an expert on transnational threats at London's International Institute for Strategic Studies and a former director in Britain's secret intelligence service.

"That said, the techniques that are being deployed go against all accepted best-practice in dealing with a counter-insurgency, particularly the use of heavy fire power.

"There are times when you are fighting an insurgency when you do employ serious war fighting. But despite that, there's a general view that the very indiscriminate nature of the military response may well be storing up resentment elsewhere," he said.

Of particular concern is the ability of Taliban-allied groups to carry out attacks in more stable parts of the country, including the capital Islamabad, when the Taliban are squeezed in other areas -- the balloon analogy of the insurgency: when it is squashed in one spot it quickly inflates in another.

Such a response has been seen before when Pakistani troops have gone on the offensive, and a similar reaction is expected this time around, even if the Taliban do end up taking a severe hit in Swat and other parts of the northwest frontier province.


David Kilcullen, an Australian counter-insurgency expert and a former adviser to U.S. General David Petraeus, argues the Pakistani military has lost the counter-insurgency battle in the northwest frontier and Pakistan's tribal areas known as FATA.

"FATA is now yesterday's problem," he told an audience in London at the launch of his new book on guerrilla conflict.

"The real problem for Pakistan now is in Punjab and Sindh," he said, referring to two more stable provinces in the east. "We need to focus on building up Pakistan's police forces and making sure they are the frontline force in those provinces."

Others argue Pakistan's military has no alternative but to go full-throttle after the Taliban now, even if it does lead to attacks elsewhere. Western criticism is only going to further unsettle a Pakistani leadership that is already put-upon.

"It's not pretty, but if you want to win the war, there are not too many other ways of doing things," said Anatole Lieven, a professor in war studies at King's College London.

"The Taliban and its allies will resort to increased terrorist attacks elsewhere in Pakistan and then there will be two questions. One is whether the army and police can hold the territory that they have conquered in Swat," he said.

"And connected to that, is will they go on to reconquer other areas on the Afghan frontier as the Americans would like? That is much more questionable."

He predicted the Taliban and its allies would target Punjab, where very poor communities are susceptible to Islamist ideology even if they do not share any Pashtun ethnic affiliation.

"But I don't see it growing into a full insurgency," he said. "It will be local extremist groups allied to the Taliban."

Longer-term stability depends not just on bolstering Pakistan's military and police, and pumping money for jobs and development into poor or remote areas to undercut insurgency, but on U.S. forces getting out of Afghanistan, he said.

"The U.S. presence in Afghanistan is what's really feeding the insurgency in Pakistan. That can't be overlooked and it's the big issue for militants in Pakistan.

"The fundamental thing to do is get out of Afghanistan as quickly as we reasonably can. I'm not talking tomorrow, but there's got to be a strategy to do it and soon." (Editing by Kate Kelland and Jon Hemming)