For the last couple of years, after a series of impressive wins over the Taliban in Swat and South Waziristan, the army has preferred to go on the defensive, holding areas it already controls but not trying to remove the Taliban from other places. The results have predictably been disastrous. The Taliban have been able to regroup and take over more territory in the tribal areas. The latest domino to fall is Tirah Valley in Khyber Agency, which despite its remoteness, is strategically important since it borders Afghanistan and also connects to Bara, which then leads on to Peshawar. As big a loss as Tirah Valley is on its own, some would say that it is symbolic of the state’s retreat in the war on militancy. It has lost the will to take the fight to the Taliban, instead adopting a wait-and-see approach to the biggest problem the country is currently facing.
The fall of Tirah Valley is also proof of the failure of the military’s strategy to rely on tribal lashkars to do the fighting. In Tirah Valley, the local Kukikhel lashkar did not have the will or firepower to defeat the Taliban. As ingenious as the idea of having locals take on the Taliban may have seemed on paper, in practice, it has proven disastrous. The military has often left the lashkars to their own devices, rarely providing the air support that is crucial to ensure victory. The lashkars are a ragtag bunch of untrained men who are yet to receive the equipment promised by the military. Contrast this to the well-trained, well-armed Taliban and you have a mismatch that is allowing militants to take over more territory daily.
The other significance of Tirah is that it provides militants with another route into Afghanistan. This will facilitate greater cross-border terrorism and lead to more accusations of government complicity from the Karzai government. It also gives militants a launching pad from which to carry out attacks in Peshawar. The military needs to retake Tirah Valley before the Taliban become so established that driving them out becomes impossible.
Published In The Express Tribune, June 13th, 2012.
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