The ongoing operation in Buner reminds one of how the government has flip-flopped between all-out talks and all-out military action without either producing the desired result. What is worse the activity has brought down whatever trust the people had in the government and the Army. Even those who complain against Taliban excesses do not support military action. The extremists constitute a mini-minority in the region. The religious beliefs of the Taliban are not shared by a large section of the otherwise moderate population of Swat and Buner. The strength of the militants lies in the guns they carry. They have employed the element of fear and intimidation to control the population, suppressing opponents through use of force, beheading those puffing up resistance Arab style, and disinterring and hanging corpses of those who fought against them. What is needed is to strengthen local resistance to the Taliban, something badly neglected al along. A fairly large section of the local population comprising the rural elite, traders and businessmen needs social harmony and peace to maintain their political hold and prosperity. This is all the more so in the Swat Valley where the livelihood of thousands of people depends directly or indirectly on tourism. In the last elections these influential sections of population played a significant role in bringing the ANP and PPP to power. Many had hoped that the local leadership of these parties would try to rally their followers against the militants. If Afzal Khan Lala could call the militants' bluff, so could other leaders too. This strangely failed to take place. Most Nazims, legislators and party leaders simply chickened out and chose to leave the area abandoning their constituencies. Some took shelter in Peshawar, others decided to sit out the storm in lslamabad and even farther away. This was like a captain deserting his damaged ship and passengers to save his own life. The lack of nerve shown by the political leadership sent a wave of dismay among their followers. There were reports of party office-bearers resigning on account of fear of the militants. No effort was made even to mobilize and strengthen other forces which were willing to put up struggle against the Taliban on their own. The militants initially met with resistance at a number of places. Had support been extended to those willing to take them on, many more would have challenged the Taliban. Last year Pir Samiullah formed his own a lashkar to fight the militants. While he battled the Taliban he received no support from law enforcement agencies. Samiullah was consequently killed along with 20 followers while 62 of his supporters were taken hostage. The incident must have been discouraging for other potential opponents of the militants. Equally discouraging was the public display of bonhomie by the pro-Taliban Commissioner Malakand for Fazluilah. A perception was created that there was no use fighting the Taliban when the state was in fact giving in to them. A similar course was followed in Buner also. Local people had raised a Qaumi Lashkar when Taliban advanced from Swat early this month. A tribal jirga was formed to persuade the militants to leave the area. As they refused to oblige, a fierce fighting followed leading to casualties from both sides. Instead of supporting the Qaumi Lashkar who were putting up the fight, Commissioner Malakand went out of his way to placate the Taliban. This helped the latter to establish themselves in Buner and disheartened those who had tried to keep them out of the district. Some of the local elite associated with the jirga and the Lashkar were so demoralized that they left Buner along with their families. Their residences and businesses were subsequently taken over by the Taliban. A large part of the population is alienated when their kith and kin are killed, houses destroyed and businesses ruined on account of the military operation. This happens when an army trained only in conventional warfare targets habitations where insurgents are using local people as human shields. The army conducts operations against its own people in accordance with textbooks that teach how to attack an enemy territory. There is a need on the part of the political leadership and the army to jointly evolve a strategy aimed at reducing the damage to the population. The victory in the fight against insurgency invariably goes to the side which is better able to win the hearts and minds of people. This requires that political aspects are given primary consideration while conducting military operations. Unless this is done the army can at best achieve a Pyrrhic victory which led a conqueror say, "One more such victory and we are lost." E-mail: azizuddin@nation.com.pk