— Editorial: Daily The News—12th April, 09
Buner, with a population of slightly over half-a-million according to the 1998 census, has fallen without a fight. Another piece of Pakistan, 1865 square kilometres to be precise, has disappeared into the maw of the Taliban.
Local people, peaceful and no trouble to anybody, were unprepared for the influx of heavily armed men who came over the border from Swat. They put up what resistance they could but they were up against a battle-hardened and determined enemy, they had no support from the federal or provincial government and it was, in military terms, a walk-over for the Taliban. Instead of pulling out of Buner as they had announced on Thursday, the Taliban of Swat moved on Friday to consolidate their hold and took control of new areas, including the shrine of Sufi saint Pir Baba, which they are reported to have locked.
The security forces offered no resistance. The houses of tribal elders have been occupied, those who organised the lashkar to resist the invasion are being threatened and targeted; pictures, videos and music CD’s have been looted from houses and burned and the road to the district HQ at Daggar is today controlled by the militants. There will be blustering denials to the contrary but the inescapable reality is that another domino has toppled and the Taliban are a step closer to Islamabad.
Maps are instructive. To the south-east of Buner is Haripur, to the east Mansehra and to the west Mardan. Haripur is the next obvious move for the Taliban once they have consolidated in Buner, perhaps via a ‘peace agreement’ that effectively cedes the territory to their control. Haripur may be a harder nut to crack, but this has not deterred them in the past and will not in the future. Mansehra and Mardan will be ‘easy’ but Abbottabad less so. They will then control the Karakoram Highway as far north as Chilas, one of our key strategic routes and the only route to China, one of our principal allies and trading partners. None of this is going to happen tomorrow and the process may take several months, but the Taliban have the upper hand and know it.
There are distinct similarities between the way in which the Taliban are nibbling away at Pakistan and the way in which the Vietcong eventually defeated the Americans. They are iconoclasts, driven by ideology and with effective charismatic leadership. They have considerable grassroots support enabling movement and concealment and are well equipped for asymmetric warfare. Powerful external backers ensure the flow of money and equipment. They are highly trained, willing to accept disproportionate casualties and have no problem of recruitment and retention. They are up against a weak and vacillating government, riddled with corruption, and bereft of the kind of vision that would countervail them physically or intellectually. The forces ranged against them are trained and equipped for the wrong war and have elements which are sympathetic to the opposition; rendering effective and consistent military operations at best weak and at worst, failing. The Americans lost in Vietnam because they consistently underestimated the Vietcong, were outfought on the battlefield and had lost the ‘hearts and minds’ fight before battle was even joined. They backed a corrupt and venal regime and eventually retreated, beaten by what they always saw as a raggle-taggle of gooks. The Taliban know what they want and how to get it. The fall of Buner may seem relatively inconsequential, but when the dots are joined up – and they are joining fast – the picture that emerges is of a state that has already surrendered.