June 23, 2021
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Fighting For Survival

The battle between against the Taliban has intensified and is clearly widening across Pakistan. According to official data, 1,400 'militants' have been killed so far in a military offensive that commenced on April 26, 2009, even as the conflict has l

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Fighting For Survival

The battle between the Security Forces (SFs) and Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) has intensified and is clearly widening across Pakistan. According to official data, 1,400 'militants' (no independent verification is possible, but it is widely believed that a significant proportion of civilian fatalities are clubbed into this category) have been killed so far in a military offensive that commenced on April 26, 2009, even as the conflict has led to the displacement of more than 3.8 million people. 

While the operations were initially confined to Lower Dir, Buner and Swat districts of the NWFP, they have gradually enveloped the rest of the Malakand division [comprising seven districts of Swat, Buner, Shangla, Dir Upper, Dir Lower, Malakand and Chitral (the last is the only district where operations are not currently taking place)] in the Frontier and, now in some measure during the last week, to the South Waziristan, Orakzai, Bajaur and Mohmand Agencies in the adjoining FATA. While the SFs have stepped up their operations, the TTP has expectedly responded with a welter of attacks across Pakistan's urban areas and elsewhere. 

Dramatic evidence of retaliation by the TTP was most recently visible in a suicide bombing at the five-star Pearl Continental hotel in Peshawar, the NWFP capital, on June 9, 2009 which killed 17 people and injured 60 others. The militants stormed the compound in two vehicles at about 10:30pm, firing at the security guards manning the hotel gate with bullets from one, and blowing up the other in the hotel's parking area. "It was a suicide attack," Capital City Police Officer Sefwat Ghayur told AFP. Among the wounded was the ruling Awami National Party's Hajj, Zakat and Ushar Minister, Haji Zarshad Khan, Senator Nabi Bangash, UN officials, foreigners and an airline's crew. 40 vehicles parked in the compound were destroyed and the hotel building was partially destroyed. Bomb Disposal Squad officials determined that at least 500 kilograms of explosives were used in the attack, which created a 15-foot wide and six-foot deep crater. Approximately 600 kilograms of explosives had been used to blow up the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad on September 20, 2008. Incidentally, both these hotels are owned by business tycoon Sadruddin Hashwani. 

Khyber Road, where the explosion occurred, is a target rich area with the NWFP Assembly and several government and military buildings, including the Peshawar High Court, residences of the Corps Commander, Inspector General of the NWFP Police, the Golf Club, and district Courts, located there. Hotel Pearl Continental, or PC as it is more famously known, is considered "a symbol of the modern and liberal Peshawar" and regularly hosted dignitaries and officials who visited Peshawar despite the chaos. This was certainly factored in by the militants who carried out the attack. 

Many foreigners, most of them associated with aid agencies, were reportedly staying in the hotel. Two foreign UN officials, Serbian national Aleksandar Vorkapic of the UNHCR and Perseveranda So of the Philippines working for UNICEF, and three local officials of the United Nations Population Fund were among those killed in the suicide bombing. A UN official said four of the injured UN workers included Gordon Brown and Augustine Fredrick of the World Food Programme, Adili Motupotu of the World Health Organisation and UNICEF intern Anna Ciger. Furthermore, citing two US officials in Washington, The Associated Press said that the State Department had been in negotiations with the hotel's owners to either purchase the facility or sign a long-term lease to house a new American consulate in Peshawar. There was, however, no American casualty. Nevertheless, the fact that militants could travel through such a highly protected zone with a truck laden with 500 kilograms of explosives in times like these is an indication of the alarming state of affairs in Pakistan. 

As is the practice of late, a hitherto unknown militant group, the Abdullah Azzam Shaheed Brigade, claimed responsibility for the suicide attack. Its spokesman, Amir Muawiya, a Pakistani TTP commander operating from the arms bazaar of Darra Adamkhel, telephoned reporters in Kohat city of NWFP on June 10, claiming responsibility and threatened more such bombings. His group, led by Commander Tariq Afridi, is affiliated to the Baitullah Mehsud-led TTP. He said the bombing was in retaliation to military operations, at the behest of the US, in Swat and the rest of Malakand, and also in the tribal areas of Darra Adamkhel and Orakzai Agency. Subsequently, the Tehrik-i-TTP Pakistan claimed responsibility for the June 12 suicide attacks in Lahore and Nowshera and the bombing of Hotel Pearl Continental. "We claim responsibility for these attacks," a man identifying himself as Saeed Hafiz and claiming to be deputy of Hakeemullah Mehsud based in Orakzai Agency told Dawn. He said the TTP would soon release the video of the PC attack. 

After a month and half of military operations, the Pakistan Army has claimed progress in 'securing' the Malakand Division and there is considerable chatter of an offensive in Waziristan. More significantly, the Barack Obama administration, which has constantly been nudging Pakistan 'to do more', appears to be content with the present 'progress'. A pleased US administration has agreed to triple American non-military aid to Pakistan to $1.5 billion per year. Islamabad has evidently been able to execute what Bowyer Bell has, in a different context, described as a 'tactical terrorist manipulation'. And even as US Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke has pledged an additional $200 million for Pakistan's displaced citizens, there are enough indications that Pakistan will continue to 'extend' such qualified assistance in the 'war on terror' and secure substantial approbation and economic rewards for services rendered. 

Crucially, the military operations are directed against the TTP, which has turned against Islamabad, and there is nothing to suggest that Pakistan has corrected course and abandoned its past policy of duplicity. It continues to consider groups like the Afghan Taliban, the Lashkar-e-Toiba, Jaish-e-Mohammed, and other terrorist proxies operating in Afghanistan and India, as its strategic assets. 

A deeper scrutiny not only detects the limits of the present pattern of military operations, but also the divergence between the projected and the actual. For instance, attempts at declaring victory by claiming that the tide was turning against TTP are undoubtedly a deception. By the government's own admission, there were at least 5,000-6,000 TTP militants in Swat alone (TTP have, of course, claimed a higher cadre strength). Officially, only a disputable 1,400 have been accounted for (as of June 12). 

According to open source monitoring by the South Asia Terrorism Portal, 2,028 militants have died in the whole of NWFP between April 26, 2009, and June 12, in addition to 310 civilians and 184 soldiers. 'Securing' Swat and the rest of Malakand Division obviously remains a distant goal, even though Islamabad's spin doctors are peddling narratives of a military victory in the Frontier. Little of the TTP leadership has been neutralized. In fact, no TTP key leader has been arrested or killed in the Swat valley so far. 

Maulana Fazlullah, the Swat unit chief, and other leaders, such as the spokesman and military commander in Mingora, Muslim Khan, Fazlullah's deputy Shah Doran, Ibn Amin, leader of the 'Tora Bora Brigade', Mehmood Khan, Akbar Hussain, Sher Muhammad Kasab, Sirajuddin, Bakht Farzand, Mian Gul Ghafoor, Nisar Ahmed, Laldin a.k.a. Baray Mian, Anwarullah, Bashir Ahmed, and Rashid Ahmed are all at large. While two 'commanders' identified as Malanga and Riaz were reportedly killed on May 18 (TTP has neither confirmed nor denied this), the military's claim of killing commanders Abu Tariq and Rashid Lala is yet to be verified. 

Abu Tariq (who, some reports indicate, is in fact spokesman Muslim Khan), has since May 21, when his killing was announced, talked to the media on several occasions. On May 21, Lala also contacted the media to prove he was alive. Notwithstanding such controversies, the TTP leadership has all gone underground, with some moving into Afghanistan. While some cadres have melted into the IDP camps, others have just trekked to the mountains or to other parts of Pakistan, retaining their capacity to strike at will. The retaliatory campaign in Lahore, Peshawar, Islamabad, and other parts is a testimony to this. On its part, the Government has claimed that the second and third rung TTP leadership has been eliminated from Swat while the top ones, including Fazlullah, have escaped to South Waziristan.

Central to the TTP retaliation is Peshawar, which is now relentlessly being attacked. Two days after the PC was bombed, there were another two attacks in the provincial capital, including one in the same area. While a man was killed and 13 others, including nine Policemen, sustained injuries in a hand grenade-cum-suicide attack on a Police party in the Lateefabad area on Ring Road, two suspects were killed and six others arrested as troops foiled a audacious terrorist attack at the house of Peshawar Corps Commander, Lt. Gen. Masood Aslam, commander of the operations against the TTP in NWFP, on Khyber Road. Incidentally, the boundary wall of his residence had collapsed due to the suicide bombing at PC. Further, on June 11, Mian Nisar Gul Kakakhel, the Minister for Prisons in NWFP, sustained bullet injuries while two of his security guards died when militants attacked his car in Darra Adam Khel area, some 35 kilometers from Peshawar. One of three attackers was reportedly killed in the exchange of fire. 

Since military operations were launched in NWFP on April 26, there have been 29 terrorism-related incidents in Peshawar, including three suicide attacks, with a total of at least 83 persons, including 51 civilians and 21 militants, killed and 236 persons wounded. Earlier, between January 1 and April 25, there were 28 incidents in Peshawar in which 31 persons, including 12 civilians and 11 militants, died and 52 persons were injured. Within the Frontier, they have also targeted places like Lakki Marwat, Kohat, Buner, Hangu, Dera Ismail Khan and Haripur. 

The TTP have also attacked other urban areas, including, repeatedly, the national capita, Islamabad and the Punjab provincial capital, Lahore. There have been four terrorist attacks in Punjab since April 26: the May 27th attack when suicide bombers detonated a vehicle loaded with 100 kilograms of explosives near offices of the Capital City Police Officer (CCPO) and the Inter-Services Intelligence in Lahore killing at least 27 persons and injuring 326 others; the suicide attack on June 6 targeting a Rescue 15 office in capital Islamabad, in which two Policemen were killed and four others injured; and the June 12 suicide attack in Lahore in which seven persons were killed. 

There is a wave of violence, from both sides, sweeping across Pakistan. On June 12, prominent anti-TTP cleric Maulana Sarfaraz Naeemi was among seven persons killed in a suicide bombing at the Jamia Naeemia seminary in Lahore. Naeemi was among those clerics who had issued an edict on October 14, 2008, declaring suicide attacks against Muslims and civilians as haram (forbidden). In another blast at around the same time, five worshippers were killed and 105 sustained injuries when a suicide bomber rammed his explosives-laden van into a mosque during the Friday prayers in the Cantonment area of Nowshera in NWFP. 

There is a squeeze factor at work here. The military operations have, in fact, led to a dispersal of violence. If the situation worsens in the days to come, the SFs will definitely be over-extended. For instance, while the military offensive in six out of the seven districts of Malakand Division continues, operations have also been launched in adjacent areas. Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR) has indicated that the Janikhel area in Bannu is a staging post for militants operating in Bannu, Dera Ismail Khan, Kohat and Peshawar. 

Official sources claimed that over 200 militants had been killed in the four-day operation in Bannu. These figures, like the data for the other current conflict theatres, cannot be verified through independent sources. The 'militant' category may, moreover, include a large proportion of civilians, as no credible system of identification appears to be in place. And even as ground troops move into Bannu, reports suggest that 500 to 600 militants are coming in from the FATA to bolster the TTP ranks in Bannu, a clear indication that the offensive in Bannu will also be protracted.

The controlled military operations currently underway in South Waziristan, Orakzai Agency and Mohmand Agency are part of a strategy that intends to tie down the militants so that they are unable to reinforce their brethren in the Frontier. It is also aimed at disrupting their retaliatory action in the urban areas. 

Sources in Islamabad indicate that operations in Bannu are also intended at "softening up" the TTP before the probable offensive in Waziristan. While President Asif Ali Zardari had indicated to The Sunday Times on May 17, that Waziristan would be the next, it is unlikely that any full fledged operation would be launched in the region immediately. Based on the trajectory of the operations in NWFP, full blown operations in FATA will probably get underway only after the whole of Malakand is secure and may perhaps as well be coordinated with comparable US action on the other side of the Durand Line. However, with the ongoing narrative indicating that the Army is in for a long haul in Malakand, operations in FATA may, consequently, be a dangerous case of the Army over-extending itself. 

The augmenting refugee problem is largely due to the indiscriminate use of aerial force and long range weapons, including missiles and artillery, which have flattened of villages across large tracts of the Frontier. It is this campaign of bombardment and strafing which has led to the exodus of more than 3.8 million IDPs. There has been minimal ground engagement in these operations in the Frontier, and this is reflected in the low 100-odd fatalities among SFs – with a majority of these deaths inflicted in terrorist attacks, and not in frontal engagement with the militants. 

The IDPs will be the most affected due to the continued targeting of cities like Peshawar. In the immediate aftermath of the attack on PC, there will be a flight out of Peshawar by most international relief organisations. In fact, UN agencies and foreign missions in Peshawar have reportedly suspended their activities and evacuated staff members to national capital Islamabad after the PC suicide bombing. NWFP had reportedly been placed in Phase-III of the UN security since the past several months due to the adverse conditions and the expatriate staff had been asked to stay away from Peshawar. In the next security phase, the UN could completely halt its operations in the Frontier. Even otherwise, Pakistan is struggling to cope with the swelling number of IDPs. According to scholar Ahmed Rashid, Islamabad says that no European or Muslim Arab country has sent any major aid. This is also a fair measure of Pakistan's progressive international isolation. 

While military operations targeting the TTP have secured a semblance of public support, a surge in the TTP bombing campaign could undermine this support. The 'collateral damage' from indiscriminate bombing, missile attacks and strafing across the Frontier, and the augmenting IDP crisis have already led to immense resentment across the country. In fact, such 'collateral damage' will have perilous ramifications in the immediate future, both in terms of public support and the fact that accounts of Islamabad bombing its own will provoke further militant recruitment. 

While the Army has admitted to a little more than 100 casualties in the campaign so far, there has been no mention about civilian casualties. And any probable military action in FATA, howsoever necessary it may be from the strategic point of view, and the consequent and inevitable displacement and severe retaliation from militants, may undo all of Islamabad's plans. In fact, around 90 per cent of the local tribesmen have already left South Waziristan and are now living in settled districts, according to Senator Saleh Shah, who added that the Government had failed to make arrangements for the people who have fled the area. In fact, according to U.N. officials, the mass exodus from the Frontier is reportedly the largest and fastest displacement of people since the genocide in Rwanda 15 years ago. 

Absent the complete neutralization of not only of the TTP leadership and cadres but of the entire TTP -- al Qaeda network, the IDPs will not return to their homes or whatever is left of it. In fact, the possibility of the TTP-al Qaeda regrouping and waging a long-term guerilla campaign has led to President Asif Ali Zardari announcing, during his address to the nation on June 12, that there would be a military cantonment in Swat. He also said Pakistan was battling for its "sovereignty," adding that it would fight "until the end." Much is obviously at stake for Pakistan's survival. 

Kanchan Lakshman is Research Fellow, Institute for Conflict Management; Assistant Editor, Faultlines: Writings on Conflict & Resolution

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