Ever since the horrific attack on Malala Yousufzai in Swat, we have been told that this inhumane attempted murder may represent a turning point in the war against militancy. This is usually a prelude to a plea for the military to launch a massive operation in North Waziristan. The attack on Malala may indeed be a watershed but one that forces us to look beyond our own borders. The government has finally, about two years too late, realised that Maulana Fazlullah, the head of the Swati Taliban, is still a threat that needs to be eliminated and that his presence in Afghanistan is a slap in the face to those who thought the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) had been routed in Swat.
Our response has been to demand that the Afghanistan government and Isaf take care of our Fazlullah problem. As welcome as that would be, relying on the benevolence of foreign powers who may not share the same security concerns as us is problematic. Just as we refuse to go after the Haqqani network, using the reason that they do not pose as much of a threat to us as the TTP, so Afghanistan and the US have pressing problems of their own, which do not include the man who earned the moniker of Mullah Radio.
Instead, it would be wiser if the military took matters into its own hands and tried to choke off Fazlullah and his men. Around the same time as the operation in Swat, the military was fighting in Dir and, in 2010, declared the area free of militants and withdrew most of its forces. This turned out to be one of the biggest mistakes we made in the war.
Fazlullah used the military withdrawal as an opportunity to start attacking targets in Dir, including politicians and the police. His targets included the ANP Senator Zahid Khan, whose brother was injured in an attack. Dir was strategically vital for Fazlullah and other Taliban leaders since it borders Swat, most of the tribal agencies and Afghanistan. Being able to move freely through Dir, allowed Fazlullah to continue inserting himself into Swat.
Now, the military needs to take back and secure Dir so that the Swati Taliban are not allowed to carry out such audacious attacks again. The fight against militancy cannot simply be restricted to one area until it is cleared, with the next target being chosen after. Any battle plan has to account for all these areas simultaneously. This was the chief problem with the original Swat operation. Partly out of concern for civilian casualties, the military announced the operation in advance. This allowed civilians to flee but also provided an escape route for the intended targets. Since the areas bordering Swat were not sufficiently protected, Fazlullah and his men were able to leave the area unharmed.
The military may have been able to hold Swat but its mission has failed. Nothing short of the capture of Fazlullah and the total rout of the Taliban should have been accepted. We sacrificed tangible long-term gains for the illusion brought by short-lived peace. Now, Malala has paid the price for such thinking. If military action is indeed the way to go, then it must be carried out with a broader strategy in mind. This will require total commitment, both in the number of troops required and the resilience of military leaders. Any less and the Taliban will simply regroup elsewhere and bide their time. Allowing that to happen again will show that we are content simply to kick the can down the road and wish our troubles away.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 2nd, 2012.