Villagers trapped between Taliban and Pakistan's war machine
When the Pakistani Army began moving its tanks and artillery for a major offensive against the Taliban in the area around the Swat Valley, Miraj Khan found himself caught between two foes.

The farmer had been praying for deliverance from the black-turbaned gunmen for months, but liberation did not come quite as he hoped. When army shells came crashing into his village last week, he was forced to cram his family and possessions into a van and flee from the path of his would-be rescuers.

"The operation started without warning and their shells smashed our houses and wounded so many people," he said. "It was needless. The Taliban had already gone."

Mr Khan, 32, was standing in a refugee camp of tents that was his new home, in a field next to a motorway 40 miles north west of Pakistan's capital, Islamabad. While children in grimy clothes ran between the tents, dazed adults swapped stories about the bombings they had narrowly escaped.

Some described seeing helicopter gunships strafing villages and jets dropping bombs, others anxiously questioned new arrivals for news of missing loved ones. "Our village was so peaceful, it was like a paradise," said one. "Now it is a hell. How could this have happened?"

Part of the answer rumbled past on the nearby motorway, where army convoys were towing giant howitzers to the front line. They had come from sprawling army bases hundreds of miles away in Kashmir, near the Indian border – where Pakistan had always expected to fight its next war.

The convoys were going to the Swat Valley to pound the Taliban after Pakistan's leaders, under mounting pressure from Washington, finally decided to act. They did so only when guerrillas moved to within 60 miles of Islamabad.

Unfortunately, as Mr Khan knew only too well, being rescued by the army could be worse than being left in the clutches of the Taliban.

"A hundred people or more were injured by the shells," he said. "Some of them must have died. But we had to get away and in the confusion it was impossible to say who lived and who died."

The refugees could see the rugged mountains of their home about 20 miles to the north, spectacular in the late afternoon light.

The mountain valleys of Swat and Buner are loved throughout Pakistan as places of tranquillity and beauty.

But as the destruction worsened, and the grip of the Taliban seemed to grow stronger even as the army began operations, Mr Khan wondered if he would ever be able to go home, and what would be waiting for him there.

As he was speaking, another family of refugees arrived in an overloaded vehicle, full of young children and exhausted grandparents. They were the vanguard of an exodus that the government estimated could involve half a million people in the next few weeks. It was potentially the biggest movement of population since the partition from India in 1947, when Hindu-Muslim violence led more than seven million Muslims to cross the border into Pakistan.

An army spokesman said the operation against the Taliban – the biggest since the insurgency started to spread in Pakistan in 2007 – was "proceeding smoothly".

On Saturday, jet planes and helicopter gunships blasted Taliban positions around Mingora, the main city, whose hospitals reported a sharp influx of wounded civilians.

But after more than a week of bombardments and air strikes, a few thousand lightly-armed Taliban fighters still seemed to control most of the territory they occupied when the Swat peace deal between them and the government began to break down.

The farmers and traders who had fled with Mr Khan had little faith in the army's ability to drive the gunmen out of their beautiful valleys. One gnarled old man pointed out that the army constantly announced body counts of Taliban but rarely showed photographs of the dead, as was customary in Pakistan.

The battle against guerrillas in mountainous Swat is a difficult one for an army that is modelled on British imperial forces, and equipped for a clash on the plains of Punjab against Indian tanks. Its whisky-swilling officers, many of whom until recently would have served for decades without hearing a shot fired in anger, have become soft.

Due to the army's habit of interfering in politics, retired and serving officers run much of Pakistan's industry and own property empires, living in luxurious villas and enjoying agreeable social lives that do not prepare them for the rigours of guerrilla war. They fight the Taliban in the only way they know how – with air strikes, artillery bombardments and tank attacks, pounding their enemy from a distance, fearful of getting close enough to be struck by suicide bombers.

Such firepower, combined with poor intelligence, results in high civilian casualty rates – which Taliban propaganda makes much of.

"This is an army that was never trained in counter-insurgency, and it does not have the logistical support for such a war," said Ikram Seghal, a retired major.

Unlike American forces across the border in Afghanistan, the Pakistan army lacks night vision technology and has only a few helicopters.

There are plans to take army units to Kuwait for instruction in counter-insurgency by American soldiers, who have learnt hard lessons on the battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq, but such training will take time.

Like the rest of Pakistan's defence establishment, Major Seghal believes that the main threat remains India – despite the increasingly frantic calls from Washington to concentrate on the enemy within. He predicted that most troops would remain on the Indian border but insisted that the army would make short work of the Taliban if the politicians stopped making peace deals.

For all its shortcomings, the army has made sacrifices in this fight. About 2,000 jawans (enlisted men) have died and thousands more have been wounded.

The war has been a traumatic experience in other ways. Soldiers dedicated to the idea of fighting "Hindu India" resent the idea of killing fellow Muslims on their own soil.

It is a view echoed by many of the army's bloated ranks of generals, who supported the nascent Afghan Taliban in the 1990s. Now they are battling jihadis whom they trained to fight wars in Afghanistan and Kashmir that they directed.

Zulmay Khan, a jawan with the Frontier Corps in Peshawar, questioned the purpose of the war.

"I do not like the Taliban but I do not want to fight against them," he said. "They are our Muslim brothers. I do not want to fight America's war."

The problems mean that nobody expects the Pakistani Taliban to be beaten swiftly – and the fear is growing that whatever happens in the current operation, Swat will prove a self-inflicted wound that will fester for years.

Mohammed Aurangzeb, the former princely ruler known as the Wali of Swat, was driven out of his valley after militants attacked his home. Now he lives in a large house in a smart Islamabad suburb, decked out with framed photographs of him meeting foreign royalty and Pakistani leaders.

"With the Pakistan government and the Taliban, the people of Swat are trapped between the devil and the deep blue sea," he said. "Far more people have been killed by the army than by the Taliban during military operations."

His ancestors fought the Mughals, Afghan raiders and one of the British expeditionary forces in which the young Winston Churchill battled against Muslim warriors.

But it was not until the Taliban takeover that the Wali of Swat, 81, finally left for exile in Islamabad. He does not think he will be able to return.

"I am sure that the problems of Swat will not be resolved in my lifetime. Things have gone too far for that now. There will be a lot of suffering in Swat yet."
Posted by: john frum 2009-05-10