The Pakistani Army has just made its initial advance into the Taliban stronghold of Mingora, the main town in the insurgency-racked district of Swat. Soldiers appear to have encountered lighter than expected resistance from the Taliban, who were reported to have entrenched in the town and mined the roadways.
Pakistani troops moved into the district’s main town after securing the Kambar Ridge to the west over the weekend. Five Taliban fighters and three soldiers were reported to have been killed during the opening round of fighting in Mingora, Army spokesman Major General Athar Abbas told Dawn. Fourteen Taliban fighters were captured and six soldiers were wounded during the fighting. Security forces encountered 12 roadside bombs during the advance into the town.
Soldiers seized eight chowks [squares or intersections], in the town, including the notorious Green Chowk, where the Taliban have conducted public executions, including beheadings, and have dumped the bodies of those who opposed Taliban rule.
The Army has linked up with police, paramilitary Frontier Corps troops, and Levies personnel that were holed up in the center of the town during the Taliban siege, according to Abbas. The military has established “a corridor from a suburb to the city centre,” the BBC reported.
Abbas said the military hoped the fighting in Mingora would end in 10 days but said a difficult task in clearing the town still lay ahead.
"Hopefully it will not be more than a week or ten days," Abbas told the BBC. "We have to clear each and every house, we have to search the streets, all those buildings which are not occupied we have to ensure that no explosives or booby-traps are there. It will take some time."
Taliban spokesman and military commander Muslim Khan said forces would remain in Mingora but had been ordered not to fire on Pakistani troops in order to avoid civilian casualties and damaging public property. An estimated 20,000 civilians are still thought to be inside Mingora, while more than 2.2 million Pakistanis overall are said to have fled the fighting in Swat, Dir, Buner, and Shangla.
Fighting has also been reported in the nearby villages of Takhtaband, Garozai, Nawakalay and Shahdara.
In Peochar, the headquarters for the Taliban in Swat, the military said it made its first foray into the northern town since air-assaulting troops there two weeks ago. The military is conducting a cordon and search operation in an effort to flush out the Taliban. A large weapons cache and a roadside bomb factory have been found during the operation.
The military also launched an operation in Malam Jabba and reportedly killed five Taliban fighters.
In addition, the military claimed to have ousted the Taliban from the town of Matta, which is north of Mingora. The Taliban are said to still be in control of the northern regions of Swat, however, including the town of Bahrain, where more than 80,000 civilians are said to be cut off from supplies.
A tactical withdrawal for the Taliban?
As the military moves into Mingora after almost three weeks of heavy fighting, the Taliban may have decided to conduct a tactical withdrawal of its forces, estimated at between 5,000 to 7,000 fighters.
A report from the neighboring district of Buner, where the military is fighting to regain control of the region taken over by the Taliban almost two months ago, indicates that some Taliban units have been ordered to go to ground while others have been ordered to fight and die in a rearguard action designed to bleed the military.
A Taliban fighter going by the name of Ghazan Khan told Deutsche Presse-Agentur that his platoon of 30 fighters was ordered to melt in with the local population fleeing the battlefield, and said some other units have been selected to remain and fight.
“Our people are giving stiff resistance but you know, the Army has tanks, helicopters and planes,” Khan told DPA. “Therefore, they have divided Mujahideen in two groups - some will continue the fight and the others will either hide in the mountains or leave the area for a while.”
“When this fight is over and the military regains control in Buner, we will wait for some weeks,” Khan continued. “Then we will come back and start a new fight from the mountains.”
The Taliban have practiced this drill several times in the past in Swat , Bajaur, Mohmand, and other areas in the northwest.
The Pakistani military has failed to establish a sufficient cordon to prevent Taliban forces from escaping the battlefields in Swat, Dir, Buner, and Shangla. The military has deployed an estimated 15,000 troops to Swat, many of whom are assigned to force protection details such as base and convoy security and logistical support.
Two weeks after the operation began, Pakistan’s military leaders discussed moving reinforcements to establish a cordon in the region. But there is little evidence that further units have deployed. Just over a week ago, in Battagram, a district bordering Buner, a Taliban force of about 70 fighters overran a checkpoint that was established to block such movement. The outpost was manned by only four policemen. The Taliban force has set up a safe haven in the region and the military has yet to move to evict them.
Background on the Malakand Accord and fighting in Swat
The fighting in Swat, Dir, Buner, and Shangla broke out after a peace agreement with the Taliban failed. The agreement, known as the Malakand Accord, placed the Malakand Division and the district of Kohistan under the control of the Taliban. The Malakand Division is comprised of the districts of Malakand, Swat, Shangla, Buner, Dir, and Chitral. The Malakand Division and the neighboring Kohistan district together encompass nearly one-third of the Northwest Frontier Province.
The government signed the Malakand Accord with Taliban front man Sufi Mohammed, Fazlullah's father-in-law, on February 16 after two years of fighting that put the Taliban in control of the district. During those two years, the military was defeated three separate times while attempting to wrest control from the Taliban. Each defeat put the Taliban in greater control of the district.
The peace agreement called for the end of military operations in Swat, the end of Taliban operations, and the imposition of sharia, or Islamic law, in the Malakand Division.
But the Taliban violated the agreement immediately after signing it, and proceeded to attack security forces and conduct armed patrols. The military remained silent while the government approved the Taliban’s demand for sharia throughout Malakand.
After enormous pressure from the US and other Western governments to stem the Taliban tide pushing toward central Pakistan, in late April the Pakistani government ordered a military offensive in Dir and Buner. Earlier in April, the Taliban had advanced from Swat into Buner, taking over the district in eight days. The move into Buner put the Taliban within 60 miles of Islamabad and close to several nuclear facilities and the vital Tarbela Dam. The Taliban also moved into Mansehra and established bases and a training camp in the region.
Pakistani government and military officials have dismissed the Taliban threat to Islamabad and the country's nuclear facilities, but at the end of April, the local Islamabad government ordered troops to deploy in the Margala hills just north of the city to block a Taliban advance, while the Haripur government beefed up security at the Tarbela Dam.