ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Pakistani forces are firmly in control of the main town in the Swat valley and are pushing north in pursuit of Taliban militants.
The offensive in the Taliban bastion of Swat, 120 km (80 miles) northwest of Islamabad, began in late April and is the most concerted effort yet to roll back a spreading insurgency that has thrown the nuclear-armed country’s future into question. Here are some possible outcomes of the fighting in Swat, where the military says about 15,000 members of the security forces have been facing 4,000-5,000 militants.
The army has secured the valley’s main town, Mingora, without extensive damage or numerous civilian casualties, according to the military and initial reports from witnesses. It will take time to restore services but residents of Mingora, which had a population of about 300,000, are likely to trickle back if they are confident about security. With public support for the offensive hinging on the plight of the displaced and civilian casualties, the securing of Mingora apparently without widespread damage and civilian casualties is a boost for the government.
Investors in Pakistani stocks, worried about security for weeks, are encouraged. There is a sense the government is finally dealing with militancy and, as a result, U.S. pressure for Pakistan to do more will ease. But investors are cautious as to whether short-term success will translate into long-term security or there will be a violent backlash. Sustained success in the valley and the speedy return of displaced would be a boost for the unpopular President Asif Ali Zardari.
Quick victory in Swat, which is not on the Afghan border, would allow the army to turn to militants in areas that are, such as North and South Waziristan, part of a region from where the Taliban orchestrate their Afghan war and where al Qaeda plots violence. The army has not announced any plans but clashes have erupted in South Waziristan, where Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud is based. The United States, which is sending thousands of reinforcements to Afghanistan, has long pressed Pakistan to eliminate militant bases on the border. Washington would welcome a Pakistani offensive in Waziristan and could respond with action on the Afghan side. But if Pakistan appeared reluctant to open a new front after Swat, the United States would likely step up pressure on the government and could increase attacks by pilotless drones on militants in Pakistan.
There have been eight bomb attacks in towns and cities since the offensive began, and the Taliban have threatened more revenge. For now, the bombs have strengthened the resolve of the government and reinforced the belief among the public that action is necessary. But a sustained and bloody bombing campaign would begin to erode public support and bolster critics who decry fighting “America’s war.” In a worst-case scenario, the government might feel forced to strike a peace deal to end the violence. No one expects the Taliban, fighting to impose their version of Islamist rule, to defeat the army. But the fear is that a demoralized government would gradually cede power to militants in more areas through deals and inaction. If the Taliban were able to make inroads into the main provinces of Punjab and Sindh, the implications would be highly bearish for stocks and the rupee, and global markets could be rattled by the risk Pakistan could implode. But chances of this happening are minimal.
Taliban expansion would also raise the nightmare scenario of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons falling into militant hands though both Pakistani and U.S. leaders say the weapons are safe. Analysts say the military has little appetite for another coup but if the situation deteriorated badly, that could change. Financial analysts say that given the unpopularity of Zardari, a coup would be positive for markets.
Another grave danger is that militants try to stage an attack in India to spark a confrontation between the nuclear-armed neighbors. That would divert Pakistan’s attention to its eastern border, as happened after November’s militant assault on the Indian city of Mumbai.
Writing by Robert Birsel; Editing by Jerry Norton