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.
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.