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The ongoing military operations against the Taliban have invited a predictable backlash from the militant network. But, to be effective, the Taliban-Al Qaeda combine will have to be targeted not only in the Malakand division of NWFP but also in the w

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Darkness Visible
The ongoing military operations targeting the Taliban in North West Frontier Province (NWFP) have invited a predictable backlash from the militant network in Pakistan’s cities. 

Militants attacked Peshawar, the NWFP capital, and its vicinity on May 28, 2009, killing eight persons, while over 68 sustained injuries. Two separate blasts occurred in the Qissa Khwani Bazaar: three Policemen were killed and another nine were injured in a suicide attack on a Police vehicle at Sra Khawra on the Kohat Road; and two suspected militants were killed and two others arrested in an encounter between the Police and alleged terrorists who had taken shelter in a building located behind Qissa Khwani Bazaar soon after the two explosions. In addition, a Policeman and two civilians were killed and 13 persons were injured when a suicide attacker exploded an auto-rickshaw near a Police checkpoint in Dera Ismail Khan.

The Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) on May 28, 2009, claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing-and-gun attack on the provincial headquarters of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) in Lahore the previous day. 27 persons were killed and at least 400 sustained injuries in the attack. "We have achieved our target. We were looking for this target for a long time. It was a reaction to the Swat operation," Hakimullah Mehsud, a militant commander and deputy to TTP chief Baitullah Mehsud, told Reuters by telephone from an undisclosed location. According to a BBC report, Hakimullah threatened similar attacks in other Pakistani cities, declaring "Residents should leave the cities of Islamabad, Rawalpindi, Lahore and Multan." 

Another group calling itself the Tehrik-i-Taliban Punjab also claimed responsibility for the attack. The group reportedly claimed responsibility in a Turkish-language communiqué posted on Turkish militant websites through an organisation called Elif Media on May 27, the SITE Intelligence Group said. SITE cited the group as saying the attack ‘targeted the ‘nest of evil’ in Lahore, and was a ‘humble gift’ to the mujahideen who suffer under the attacks of Pakistani forces in Swat. The claim is yet to be verified and the group's relationship to the Taliban is uncertain.

The Lahore attack came a day after Taliban spokesperson Maulvi Mohammad Omar threatened retaliation across Pakistan if the military operation in Swat was not stopped. Interior Minister Rehman Malik on May 27 blamed the Taliban for the attack, saying it could be retaliation to Operation Rah-i-Raast, the Government’s military operations against the TTP. "It appears to be a fallout of the ongoing military operations in Swat, Dir and other areas of NWFP," Malik said. He added, however, that there would be no let up in the crackdown on these "anti-national elements". "They want to destabilise Pakistan. Threats have been held out by Tehrik-e-Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud," the Interior Minister told reporters in Karachi, "We are in a state of insurgency. There is a war inside the country and there were two options before the Government... either to cave in... or to confront and crush them… We have opted to flush them out."

The attack at the provincial headquarters of the ISI is the third major terrorist attack in Lahore in less than three months, following the March 3 attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team and the March 30 attack on the Manawan Police Academy. 

Meanwhile, the military said on May 29, 2009, that more than 1,300 Taliban militants and 90 soldiers had died in the operations launched in the districts of Lower Dir on April 26, Buner on April 28 and Swat on May 8. However, these figures cannot be confirmed independently. Between April 26 and May 29, 212 civilians, 118 Security Force (SF) personnel and 1,483 militants were killed in the NWFP, according to the South Asia Terrorism Portal database. Since media access is heavily restricted in NWFP, and there is only fitful release of information by Government agencies and media reportage, the actual figures could be much higher. The ‘militant’ category may, moreover, include a large proportion of civilians, as no credible system of identification appears to be in place. 

Within Swat, the troops are reportedly consolidating their positions in Mingora, the largest city in the district, Qambar, Kanju and Kabal areas. Troops have secured several important areas in Mingora, including a crossing [Green Chowk, also known as Khooni (bloody) Chowk] infamous for the beheadings carried out by the Taliban. Operations are also underway in the Nawagai, Nawan Killi, Gulabad and Landikas areas. The SFs have taken control of Bahrain and cleared Peochar village in Swat, the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) stated on May 29. The militants are on the run in small groups from their former Peochar stronghold. 

Troops have also secured the vital Wanai Bridge linking Matta with Peochar. Some residents of Kanju, who managed to reach Peshawar on May 28, said Mingora, Kanju and Kabal towns were almost cleared as the Taliban had vacated these areas. "They have moved towards mountains," they said. Among the several areas in Swat that have been wrested from the Taliban are Banai Baba Ziarat, the highest point in the Valley, Fizagat, Watakai and Qambar, north of Mingora city. 

The hill resort of Malam Jabba, which was being used as a training centre and logistics base by the Taliban, has also been secured. Commandos have been air-dropped in Peochar and the headquarters of Maulana Fazlullah, the Taliban chief in Swat, has been effectively surrounded. Military spokesman Major General Athar Abbas disclosed, on May 23, that there were about 1,500 ‘hardcore militants’ still fighting in Swat, and that the Army would try to complete the operation in eight weeks. On May 19, the military had stated that approximately 15,000 troops were confronting some 4,000 well-armed militants in Swat. 

In Buner, operations are still continuing in the district headquarters, Daggar, while the SFs had completely secured the Sultanwas area by May 20. A majority of the approximately 400 militants in Buner have reportedly escaped to the safer terrain of the mountains. Since the launch of operations on April 28, progress has been swift but there are still three pockets of resistance in northern Buner, according to Yahya Akhundzada, the district Coordination Officer, who revealed that the difficult site lay between the villages of Sultanwas, about four miles north of Daggar, and Pir Baba, around 10 miles north of Daggar. 

In addition, the SFs are also concentrating on the Kalpani and the Maidan areas of Lower Dir district. Brigadier Amal Zada, in charge of the ongoing operations in Lower Dir, told reporters in district headquarters Timergara on May 20 that over 200 militants and 14 soldiers had been killed till then. He added that a large number of militants had left the area in the guise of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs). He, however, said the SFs had cordoned off the militant infested areas and established checkpoints in Hayaserai and Lal Qila areas of Maidan. Strafing of militant hideouts is reportedly underway in Kithiarai, Landi Shagi and other areas of Adenzai. The SFs were consolidating their positions in Chakdara while they have cleared the area from Barikot to Tandodag.

Suspected hideouts and camps of the Taliban in the adjoining districts of Upper Dir, Malakand and Shangla were also being targeted by the Army. With warplanes dropping bombs in five villages of the remote Doog Darra area in Dir Upper district on May 17, it became the sixth district in the Malakand division, out of seven, where SFs have launched military operations against the Taliban. Malakand division comprises the seven districts of Swat, Buner, Shangla, Dir Upper, Dir Lower, Chitral and Malakand. Chitral is the lone district where there is currently no military operation.

The issue of IDPs has cast a shadow on the military operations and indicates a certain lack of strategic planning at the GHQ in Rawalpindi. The fact that Pakistan is facing its biggest refugee crisis since the 1947 Partition was not anticipated by Islamabad, despite the intensity of its own bombing and strafing operations in largely civilian areas, and the state is finding it extremely difficult to cope with the situation. The NWFP Information Minister Mian Iftikhar Hussain said at a press conference in provincial capital Peshawar on May 29 that the number of IDPs now stood at 3.4 million – 2.8 million from Malakand division alone. 

The magnitude of the problem is visible from the fact that the UN has hinted at the option of requesting Pakistan to accept a ‘humanitarian pause’ in its military operations in Swat and elsewhere. The issue of IDPs has also led to a deepening of ethnic faultlines in Pakistan. For instance, two province-wide strikes have been organized against the arrival of IDPs in Sindh. Radical Sindhi nationalist groups like the Jeay Sindh Qaumi Mahaz and others have strongly opposed the influx of ethnic Pashtun IDPs in Sindh. At least three people were killed and several vehicles burnt as riots erupted on May 23 throughout Karachi during a strike to protest the en masse arrival of IDPs from Malakand. 

The simmering ethnic tensions in Sindh are bound to have serious repercussions across an already fragmented nation. There is also the danger of the fleeing Taliban militants mixing themselves with the IDPs. Police have reportedly arrested 39 suspected Taliban militants hiding among the IDPs of Swat and other regions of Malakand, a senior officer stated on May 29. Syed Akhtar Ali Shah, the Police chief in Mardan, disclosed that a dozen militants were arrested in IDP camps south of Swat region, while the others were arrested from houses where the IDPs were staying with relatives or were renting, in a town that hosts some of the approximately one dozen relief camps. 

Even as the Taliban demonstrates its retaliatory capacities in the urban areas and the issue of refugees dominates the narrative, doubts are being raised on whether the military operations can be carried to a logical end. More attacks in the cities and Punjab in particular could derail the current campaign. Furthermore, the dependence on heavy artillery and air power has had dangerous ramifications with regard to collateral damage – something that has, as yet, been brushed under the carpet by the media and international community. 

While the government has committed that military operations against the Taliban would be extended to the FATA and other areas, there is a real danger of the Taliban linking up with militant groups from Punjab to threaten the very institutional core of Pakistani stability. Ahmed Rashid notes: "Ultimately we’re going to reach a tipping point where the Taliban will have opened so many fronts in Punjab that it will be almost impossible for the Army to deploy against so many fronts which are so distant from each other geographically." There is expected to be deeper co-ordination and operational co-operation between groups like the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and Taliban as was witnessed in the Marriot attack in Islamabad (September 20, 2008) and the attack that targeted the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore. 

An advisory issued by the Interior ministry has said terrorists were planning suicide attacks in different areas of Punjab province in reaction to the ongoing military operations in Swat and other districts of NWFP. The basic targets in these attacks are likely to be the security forces and law enforcement institutions. In addition, Taliban and other terrorists operating in Waziristan have started planting landmines in the area, a private TV channel quoted a BBC report as saying on May 28. Baitullah Mehsud has reportedly ordered ‘commanders’ Asmatullah Muawiya and Qari Zafar to plant landmines across South Waziristan, while the task in North Waziristan has been taken on by different groups active in the Agency. 

A counter-insurgency strategy can be effective only if there are operations that target the Taliban-Al Qaeda combine not only in the Malakand division of NWFP but also in the whole of FATA. In addition, there is the top leadership of the Taliban that continues to find refuge in Balochistan, and a significant presence of the militant network in Punjab and Sindh provinces. Military operations spread across these provinces will be impossible in the current context. While there is immense pressure on the Government to launch a military operation in Waziristan, there is a dilemma of whether they should wait till Swat is secured or open up another front without more ado. There is also the related and enormously significant issue of re-settling the IDPs, whose number continues to augment by the day. All of this has the potential to eventually undermine military operations. 

Permanent troop presence is a necessity if the Army is to hold territory. This is possible only if a substantial number of troops are moved from the eastern border. But in Islamabad’s erroneous logic, India remains the main threat to Pakistan’s existence. The US has been asking Pakistan to intensify its offensive against the Taliban but Islamabad is disinclined to move any more troops from the eastern border. But absent such troop relocation, it will not be possible to launch operations in FATA and also continue with the ongoing offensive in the Frontier. And operations in FATA are bound to be arduous and challenging because of the terrain and the nature of the enemy. Moreover, Islamabad cannot merely launch operations in Waziristan alone within the tribal region. It will have to initiate operations in the Khyber, Bajaur, Mohmand, Kurram, and Orakzai agencies, in fact virtually all of FATA as well, if the strategy is to have even a minimal impact. All of this would mean more boots on the ground and the consequent necessity of re-deployment from the eastern border. 

A critical objective of any counter-insurgency strategy in the Frontier is a compatible strategy in FATA. There can not be peace in the NWFP without first achieving normalcy in FATA, since there is a clear link between the militancy in the two regions. The Taliban have been sending fighters from Bajaur and other tribal areas to reinforce the militant ranks in Swat whenever the need arises. In fact, the Taliban are able to "receive reinforcements from all over NWFP and even from other provinces in times of need."

Related to holding territory is the broader aspect of stabilising the province. The loss of civil governance and of the spaces currently dominated by the forces of radical Islam has to be reversed, and military ‘successes’ alone cannot suffice. However, even in the territories ‘regained’ in the past, no civil administration worth its name has been established to govern the territory. The NWFP is ‘at war’ and the governance of the province is "becoming difficult", Chief Minister Ameer Haider Hoti confessed in Peshawar on April 2, 2009. Hoti admitted that the NWFP was suffering from insurgency, terrorism, internal displacement, shortage of food and decline in the efficiency and effectiveness of law enforcement agencies. 

One of the fundamental reasons for the state’s inability to hold territory in the Frontier is the absence of an effective mechanism for administration on the ground. This is compounded further by severe deficiencies in fighting capacities. While the Army is a relatively well-equipped force, the hamstrung Police face a grim challenge as they attempt to create the first line of defence against urban militancy. 75 per cent of Policemen deployed in Buner district have reportedly gone missing, while over 40 per cent have not reported for duty in Swat. "Almost 310 cops out of the total 400 policemen have reportedly deserted the force in Buner while 820 have quit jobs in Swat. The Swat Police comprise of around 2000 policemen," The News reported on May 26, 2009. It added that over 30 per cent of the total strength of Malakand Police has either quit or Policemen are not reporting to their concerned Police Stations for the past several months. The affliction goes well beyond the constabulary, and senior officers have also been avoiding postings in Malakand for the past two years.

Unlike previous military operations, the Taliban has certainly been on the defensive this time around, and it will take them sometime to regroup, at least in the Malakand division. They have had a series of setbacks, especially during the street battles in the past week. Unlike previous occasions, there has been some determined action by the Army and its supporting forces, largely due to the external pressure on Islamabad. While an unspecified number of mid-level commanders have been killed in the military offensive so far, the Taliban leadership – including Maulana Fazlullah, Muslim Khan, Ibne Amin and Shah Doraan – remains at large. While there are, at the time of writing, approximately 1,000 Taliban militant still offering resistance in Mingora, scores of them are heading towards their stronghold in Kabal. Recognizing the intensity of the military offensive, a large number of militants have simply trekked back into the mountains. Reports over the past few days indicate that militants are avoiding fighting with the troops and have simply taken evasive action. 

The Taliban had, however, prepared well for such an offensive. Sources indicate that the Taliban used the cease-fire period to build bunkers, lay landmines, secure arms and ammunition, recruit more militants and increase the number of training camps in Swat and elsewhere in the Malakand division. According to the military, a large number of Arabs, Afghans and Uzbeks have joined the fighting in Swat. Officials have also recounted the Taliban’s doggedness in holding on to their strongholds. For instance, the troops captured a strategic ridge popularly known as Baini Baba Ziarat, which is 7,000 feet above sea level, after two weeks of fierce fighting, on May 20. This has been considered the Army’s major success, so far, in the Malakand division. "It was very difficult to dislodge them from that height," Brigadier Suba Khan, who led the offensive, admitted. "They fought to the last man," Lt-Col Mohamed Riaz, who led the final charge, was quoted as saying in Dawn. Up to 150 militants were killed in the battle, described by the two military officials as the bloodiest since the operations began in Swat. Baini Baba Ziarat had been used by the Taliban as a training centre for a long time. 

While there will be some momentary gains from the ongoing military operations, the neutralization of Islamist extremism will necessitate what Ahmed Rashid describes as a "strategic paradigm shift by the government and the Army." Such a shift, he says, will affect domestic and foreign policy, relations with Pakistan's neighbours and a different set of national interest priorities. Pakistan is certainly not ready for any of these as yet and, more importantly, any abrupt course correction will threaten its very identity and existence. 

The GHQ has refused to give any timeline for the conclusion of military operations in NWFP and there is little prospect for an early termination.

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