On November 16, The New York Times published a long story by Jane Perlez and Ismail Khan entitled, “Militants Gain Despite Decree by Musharraf.” The story focused on some small but highly significant military gains by local Taliban near Swat. The article was unrelentingly negative about the Pakistani army’s will and ability to combat its Islamist foes. Two-and-a-half weeks later, the situation in Swat has radically reversed. The districts newly-conquered by Islamists in mid-November are returning to normalcy, and the local Taliban has been driven almost entirely out of the settled areas of Swat and into the hills. Although these military gains could certainly be reversed or inadequately capitalized on, this is an important story, and a significant turnaround in the war on terror in Pakistan. Yet the mainstream media, including The New York Times, has been largely silent on these important developments. If small but significant setbacks near Swat warranted major coverage on November 16, where is coverage of the still more radical and positive turnaround in the entire Swat valley today?
As I’ve said before, some significant degree of skepticism on these matters is entirely warranted. With Taliban survivors now hiding in the hills of Swat, there is still real danger of further fighting. As a tourist area, Swat’s economy is particularly vulnerable to even a limited terror campaign. And it’s by no means clear that the government will now follow up success in Swat with attempts to turn back the past year’s Islamist gains in neighboring tribal areas.
At the same time, the army’s combination of artillery barrage, attack helicopters, and at least some ground assaults seems to have sufficed to drive the enemy from its entrenched positions. It would seem that this technique could be followed up elsewhere in the tribal regions. At any rate, it’s a question worth following up. Both the positives and the negatives in the Swat turnaround are worth serious media scrutiny–attention that would no doubt help stiffen the Pakistan army’s spine. Yet the story of the turnaround in Swat has been almost entirely ignored.
Syed Saleem Shahzad, Asia Times Online’s Pakistan Bureau Chief, if no fan of the war on terror. He continually encases the phrase in scare quotes, plays down military successes, and writes as though attempts to destroy the havens of terrorists who plot mass murder in the West is somehow interference in Pakistan’s “internal” affairs. Nonetheless, Shahzad is a knowledgeable correspondent, and this is what he has to say about the situation in Swat: “The Pakistani army has for now won the battle of the Swat Valley…against the militants, and recaptured all districts that had fallen to militants loyal to Mullah Fazullah. The militants are seemingly on the run.” Shahzad notes that if the army follows up by continuing its attacks on militant positions in the hills, they may retaliate by starting a guerrilla war in Swat. That is a serious concern. But where are media reports on all of these highly significant developments in Swat?