Pakistani president Asif Ali Zardari is seriously suspected of inflating the scale of his war on Taliban in the north and deliberately generating a major refugee crisis to pry open Western coffers for a multi-billion aid flow to haul his country out of its economic crisis and firm up his feeble grip on power.
Some estimate the number of displaced persons from the embattled Swat Valley, 130 kilometers northwest of the capital, Islamabad and Buner province as one million; the US raises the figure to 1.7 million.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military and intelligence sources disclose the grounds for these suspicions:
1. The Pakistani military has so far not staged any major pitched battles with Taliban in the Swat Valley as its commanders claim, nothing more than selective raids against small Taliban targets. This week, US and other intelligence quarters tracking the war were able to confirm that Taliban's command posts and the bulk of its fighting force have not been attacked or even drawn into combat.
Independent observes have concluded that the Pakistani army has been fielded only to the extent that it enables president Zardari to throw off US pressure on his government to do more in the war on Islamist terror.
2. Islamabad's claims that reinforcements have ramped up Pakistani combat units in the battle arenas to 15,000 troops are likewise overstated. Our military sources put the figure closer to 5,000 men – 6,000 at most.
Had the Pakistan command augmented its strength in the battle arenas, Taliban would have matched them. However, no record of any such boost or requests for more fighters from local Taliban commanders to their headquarters in Waziristan has been found in analyses of their signals.
3. Equally unverified is the Pakistani army's claim to have killed more than 1,000 Taliban fighters in two weeks of purportedly intense fighting. Independent sources put the number of killed at 300 – not all of them Taliban members.
Certain Pakistani military and political experts who are independent of the government have been grumbling in the last few days: “If we lose this war, we will lose because of the killing of innocent people.”
Zardari plays the nuclear trump
4. Since the limited skirmishes have not placed large population groups in harm's way, and since the Pakistani army never planned to engage in “door-to-door combat” in the Swat Valley – certainly not in the district capital of Mingora – there was no need to put more than a million Pakistanis to flight.
This has created the country's biggest refugee problem since its secession from India in 1947 and war of independence in 1948.
5. Yet wherever he goes, Zardari makes public and ever-increasing demands for huge sums of money from the US and the West for running the war and for aiding his self-made refugee crisis.
Officials at the US National Security Council and the Pentagon in Washington were bowled over when they heard Zardari boasting in an interview run Sunday, May 17 by Pakistan's largest newspaper, The Daily Times, that his army was preparing to expand its war on the Taliban to the lawless Federally Administrated Tribal Areas, the havens and bastions of Taliban and al Qaeda for their war in Afghanistan.
“We’re going to go into Waziristan, all these regions, with army operations,” he said. “Swat is just the start. There’s a larger war to fight.”
Not only is the Swat battle nowhere near won, but the Pakistani military is not known to have made any preparations for a battle on this scale. All their past expeditions in Waziristan have failed. Furthermore, the bulk of the Pakistani army, some 700,000 men, is still deployed on the Indian border, despite American exhortations to re-assign them to the war on terror.
Zardari insisted that all he needs to go for the Taliban-al Qaeda jugular in Waziristan is awesome amounts of cash plus $1.7 billion for persons internally displaced by the operation.
“We need much, much more than the $1 billion [military aid] we’ve been getting (from US), which is nothing,” said the Pakistani president. “We’ve got 150,000 troops in the Tribal Areas – just the movement of that number would cost $1 billion,” he added.
Multibillion dollars in aid – plus drones
The bill Zardari has submitted to Washington has soared to tens of billions of dollars to be paid out in the next two or three years. The US Congress' assessment of Pakistan's assistance needs for conducting its war on the Taliban is understandably more modest, closer to $3 billion over the next five years, for training and equipping Pakistan’s military for counterinsurgency warfare. That allocation would come on top of $7.5 billion in civilian assistance. So Islamabad would be receiving about $2.1 billion a year in toto.
Zardari's shopping list also included the US providing Pakistan with new aerial and intelligence capabilities – especially drone technology.
“I want drones,” he said. “I want transfer of technology so I can manufacture them at home and use them myself.”
The chances of Washington letting the Pakistan president have his own fleet of drones are nil.
The US will hardly relinquish to Pakistani control its most advanced weapon system in the war on terrorists in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Neither would the US want Pakistan to have this edge over India in view of the animosity governing relations between the two nuclear-armed neighbors.
Monday, May 18, military sources in Islamabad told reporters that Zardari, not content with threatening to open a second front in Waziristan, said he was gearing up for a third theater of operations, this one around the city of Darra Adam Khel.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military and intelligence sources report that since this region is located between Peshawar and Kohat, very close to the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (see enclosed map), Zardari is clearly trying to put the security of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal forward as a lever to squeeze more military aid and funds out of the Obama administration.
More on this in a separate article on the security of Pakistan's nuclear stocks.