Another Blow to the Pakistani Taliban
The Pakistani army has dealt another blow to the Taliban. The arrest of Muslim Khan, the chief spokesman for the militants, along with four other commanders, is a major breakthrough in Pakistan’s battle against Al-Qaeda-backed militants.
Muslim Khan is more than a public relations man. He is a top commander who had spearheaded the bloody insurgency in the north-western Swat valley that has left thousands of people dead.
The high-valued arrests have come just a few weeks after the death of Baitullah Mehsud, the chief of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), in a US missile strike in the South Waziristan tribal region. His death caused much disarray within the TTP and a triggered a major leadership battle. The latest arrests have further weakened the Taliban and curtailed their capacity to strike back.
Mr. Khan, who carried a head money of Rs 1,000,000, and other commanders were trapped outside Mingora, the main town of the troubled Swat valley last week, but the news was kept secret for security reasons. The four others, Mahmood Khan, Fazle Ghaffar, Abdul Rehman and Sartaj Ali, who were arrested with Muslim Khan, are lower down in the Taliban hierarchy.
The white-bearded Muslim Khan, who had spent many years in the US (reportedly as a house painter) before returning to Pakistan in 2002, had earned notoriety for claiming responsibility for several terrorists attacks carried out by Taliban in the past year. His ability to converse in English and other languages made him a prolific spokesman for the terrorist network. He was one of the most ruthless militant commanders, ordering the murder of opponents. In an interview this spring, he said he had a list of Pakistanis in Swat who the Taliban planned to execute, including a woman who he said would be killed because her husband worked for the American army. In recent months he called Pakistani journalists to warn them their reporting was biased against the Taliban, and they would be punished.
Once a peaceful and relatively liberal region dotted with ski resorts and fruit orchards, the Swat Valley became a magnet for pro-Al-Qaeda militants. A large number of foreign fighters, including Uzbeks, Chechens and Arabs, joined the militancy there, increasing the threat to Pakistan’s security. Many viewed the situation in the Swat Valley as a test case of Pakistan’s resolve. Around 30,000 troops were involved in major army offensive in the alpine gateway in May after the Taliban started advancing to neighbouring districts, taking advantage of a controversial deal that allowed them to enforce Sharia law. The Taliban march to Buner, an area just 60 miles from Islamabad, had caused serious concern in Washington. The military claims to have killed more than 2,000 insurgents in the current operations, which are being praised by the West. Up until recently, though, the US had been growing increasingly concerned that nuclear-armed Pakistan lacked the will to take on the TTP, who are also being blamed for launching attacks on US-led coalition forces in Afghanistan. The failure to capture or kill militant leaders had raised fears the insurgents could stage a comeback.
Pakistani authorities had posted a reward of 50 million rupees for Mullah Fazlullah, who is leading the Swat insurgency, and his ten top lieutenants, but Friday marked the first announcement of any arrests from the list.
Sporadic fighting has continued in some parts of the valley where the Taliban are still holding on.
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