There are clear signs that the celebratory period of the coalition government in Pakistan is over and the regime under Prime Minister Syed Yousuf Raza Gilani is facing immense pressure from multiple sources. Prominent among these is the enduring militancy across the country and the concomitant failure to stem the progression of entrenched forces of extremist Islam.
The first half of year 2008 has seen approximately 1,569 militancy-related fatalities across Pakistan (data till June 29). This includes 699 civilians and 616 militants. By comparison, the first half of 2007 had witnessed approximately 869 deaths, including 435 militants and 353 civilians.
The peace processes initiated by Islamabad in the aftermath of the elections and installation of the new government is now rapidly unraveling, and reports now indicate that massive operations have been initiated by the Army in the Bara area of the Khyber tribal region. Earlier, on June 25, 2008, militants of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) killed 22 members of a pro-government "peace committee" at Jandola near Tank (adjacent to South Waziristan) in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP). Tank District Co-ordination Officer Barkatullah Marwat stated, "I can confirm that 22 bullet-ridden bodies of those kidnapped by the Taliban three days ago were recovered on Wednesday (June 25) near Jandola… Some of the dead were shot and some had their throats slit." Claiming responsibility for the killings, Taliban spokesman Maulana Umar declared, "We have killed 22 and the fate of the remaining six will be decided later." He added, further, "the government should not intervene in the current situation, otherwise peace talks would be seriously undermined."
Suspected militants also killed seven persons, including a leader of the ruling Pakistan People’s Party, a tribal elder, and their family members, in addition to destroying a Police station, a girls’ school and a state-owned hotel in the Swat district of NWFP on June 26. In fact, on June 23, TTP militants had captured Jandola town in South Waziristan, after a gun-battle with pro-government tribesmen, in which six persons, including four tribesmen and two militants, were killed. Latest reports indicate that the Army has moved approximately 3,000 troops into Jandola to evict the militants. According to General Athar Abbas, the military spokesman, Security Forces (SFs) have cleared Jandola of militants loyal to Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud.
There is a fair amount of confusion within the government on counter-terrorism. The NWFP Governor Owais Ahmad Ghani declared, on June 13, that the government would continue its dialogue with militants in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) despite ‘enormous’ international pressure. However, on June 25, Prime Minister Gilani reportedly approved a military operation to clear FATA of militants. Gilani approved the use of force during a high-level meeting that reviewed progress on the war on terrorism and the law and order scenario in the NWFP and FATA. The meeting also reportedly decided that the government would continue negotiations with "local elders to isolate hardcore militants." The Chief of Army Staff would take the lead on deciding when to employ military force, including the deployment of the Frontier Corps. An official statement later disclosed that the meeting decided to fight "terrorism and extremism" through a ‘multi-pronged strategy’: "The broad objective of this strategy will be to bring about peace, reconciliation and normalcy of life in the country and marginalise the hard core terrorists, militants and criminal elements." The statement, at best, reflects the vagueness that now pervades the state.
Cornered by the militants, the government appears to be faltering, unsure whether to proceed with dialogue alone or follow a purely military approach. While it retains the option to initiate military operations at an opportune time, delays threaten to compound the situation, as further contradictions and complexities emerge. Islamabad should also be well aware of the omissions and commissions of the President Pervez Musharraf’s strategy in prosecuting the campaign against terrorism – and wary of treading the same path, as appears to be the present case.
The confusion in strategy largely reflects the Gillani regime’s
misconception – no different from its predecessor’s – that ‘talking to
the devil’ will yield rich dividends in the embattled country. Recent history
in Pakistan is replete with examples that unambiguously indicate that
appeasement only creates safe and significantly new spaces for terrorism.
At a certain level, the government remains substantially in denial. On June 20, the NWFP Senior Minister Bashir Ahmed Bilour told the Provincial Assembly that there were no Taliban in Peshawar and the provincial government would not hold talks with local Taliban in other settled areas. "We do not accept Taliban except in Swat. Nor are we going to initiate dialogue with them," he told the House. However, Rehman Malik, Adviser to the Prime Minster on Interior Affairs, stated on June 24 that the government was fully aware of the militancy situation in the NWFP and would "take proper action" within a week. Addressing the National Assembly, he declared that the situation in Peshawar was not critical: "The government is not sleeping and is aware of its responsibilities."
On June 17, the Swat-based Taliban militants suspended contact with the NWFP government to protest against the slow progress on a peace agreement they entered into on May 21, 2008. Taliban spokesman Muslim Khan, stated, further, that "some elements were interfering in the peace process," as a result of which the Taliban had decided to temporarily freeze communications with the provincial government. While this could be seen as a routine pressure tactic, it appeared to be working. Reports on June 20 indicated that the two sides resumed dialogue when the provincial Forests Minister Wajid Ali Khan ‘secretly’ met Taliban leaders and assured them that their reservations would be addressed. He met several Taliban leaders, including Ali Bakht, Haji Muslim Khan, Maulana Amin, Mahmood Khan and Nisar Khan, in the Deouli area of Swat and asked them to continue the dialogue. The Taliban reportedly complained that militants were still in prison and that the Army had not withdrawn from the area.
Sources indicate that, among the issues which the Taliban are adamant on, are the withdrawal of the military, the release of detained Taliban operatives, and the return of arms and ammunition seized from the militants. The Army, still a reluctant supporter of the peace deals, is not yet ready to cede space. There is also some opposition, both within the Army and the political administration, on the release of detained Taliban operatives. Further, Islamabad is aware that acceding to these demands would ensure that that the Taliban /al Qaeda combine have de jure control and full freedom of movement and activities across FATA and the NWFP.
Recognizing that the state of play in NWFP was now critical, Parliamentarians warned the government that the country might lose one of its provinces if it did not consider the situation in NWFP seriously. Speaking in the National Assembly, Maulana Fazlur Rehman, chief of his own faction of the Jamaat-e-Ulema-e-Islam and a patron of the Taliban, declared that it was a matter of months before the NWFP was no longer part of Pakistan. He also criticised Malik’s statements, arguing that the government would further aggravate the situation through the use of force. Rehman’s concern is not completely misplaced. Reports indicate that "these days Taliban fighters don't sneak in to Peshawar... They arrive in broad daylight on the back of pick-up trucks, brandishing automatic weapons, and threatening owners of music stores to close down." Mehmood Shah, a former tribal region security chief, said "This speaks of a complete lack of control by the government over the situation." Syed Saleem Shahzad writes that "there is now a belief in security circles that should they want to, the Taliban could take the Peshawar Valley."
A security plan is, however, being designed to protect
Peshawar from attacks by the Taliban. Around 3,000 security force personnel are
to be deployed to guard the city and 26 security posts would be set up to
monitor militant activities. An unnamed senior police official had earlier
stated that Police had told the government it could not control militancy on its
own and needed the assistance of the Frontier Constabulary, the Frontier Corps
and the Army.
Ambiguous peace agreements initiated by Islamabad and the NWFP government are currently allowing the Taliban, al Qaeda and allied jihadi groups to regroup, build up their strength and consolidate. Having secured immense gains from previous pacts, the Taliban/al Qaeda combine are now pushing for a further consolidation which would not only ensure rapid geographical expansion, but force further capitulation on the state, which remains, regrettably, a prisoner of its own vacillations.
While there have been earlier reports about desertions among the besieged Pakistan armed forces fighting the Islamists, classified US documents now indicate that the Frontier Corps has been heavily infiltrated and influenced by the Taliban. There are "box loads" of reports of the troops joining militants in attacks on coalition forces, according to the classified US 'after-action' reports, compiled following clashes on Pakistan-Afghan border. "The United States and Nato have substantial information on this problem. It's taking place at a variety of places along the border with the Frontier Corps giving direct and indirect assistance," The Observer quoted an unnamed American official as saying. "The US documents reportedly describe the direct involvement of Frontier Corps troops in attacks on the Afghan National Army and coalition forces, and also about detailed attacks launched so close to Frontier Corps outposts that Pakistani co-operation with the Taliban is assumed."
Pakistan’s incapacity to prosecute the war on terror in the FATA and NWFP due to disastrous deals with the militants has also augmented the already gigantic terrorist problem in neighbouring Afghanistan. In fact, Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai threatened to send Afghan troops across the border to fight Taliban militants within Pakistan. Accusing Pakistan of sheltering most of the militants involved in recent incidents in the Garmser District of Helmand Province, he told a Press Conference that Afghanistan had the right to self-defence and, since militants cross over from Pakistan "to come and kill Afghans and kill coalition troops, it exactly gives us the right to do the same." In response, the PM’s advisor, Rehman Malik, warned the "bordering country" against launching attacks inside Pakistan, adding, "Otherwise we will also launch action." Meanwhile, on June 26, Pakistan rejected Afghan accusations that its Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) was behind an assassination attempt against President Hamid Karzai in April 2008.
Islamabad’s failure to arrive at an effective counter-terrorist strategy has, unsurprisingly though rather late, invited criticism from the US. US Defence Secretary Robert Gates stated in Washington on June 27 that Pakistan's failure to put pressure on Taliban forces on the country's border with Afghanistan had fueled a rise in violence. A 40 per cent spike in violence in east Afghanistan in the first five months of 2008 "is a matter of concern, of real concern, and I think that one of the reasons that we're seeing the increase... is more people coming across the border from the frontier area," Gates said. He noted, further, "the ability of the Taliban and other insurgents to cross that border and not being under any pressure from the Pakistani side of the border is clearly a concern." He also said cross-border infiltration and violence had increased in the past few months after peace deals were negotiated with Taliban and other militants. According to Gates, "What has happened is that, as various agreements have been negotiated or were in the process of negotiation with various groups by the Pakistani government, there was the opportunity – the pressure was taken off of these people and these groups… And they've therefore been more free to be able to cross the border and create problems for us." Earlier, on June 10, the US Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Admiral Michael Mullen had declared that any future terrorist attack against US interests would most likely be carried out by militants based in FATA. He noted that tribal groups with ties to al Qaeda in the FATA represent the worst security threat to the US.
Further, the US is now finding it difficult to initiate and sustain its own agenda in Pakistan. The problem partly lies in the fact that it does not have a completely acquiescent government or an obliging Army establishment in Islamabad. Adding to the complexity is the status of the besieged and weighed down President Musharraf who, contrary to what a lot of people anticipated, refuses to ‘go quietly into the night’.
Amid growing apprehensions in Washington, Kabul and elsewhere on the mounting disorder in Pakistan, Islamabad may be pushed into launching selective, if not large-scale, military operations in the NWFP and FATA. Given the prevailing dynamic, however, this will only raise violence even further – even as any effort to hammer out a negotiated deal with the extremists offers no relief. Pakistan, it appears, remains caught in a cleft stick, with no avenues of escape.
Kanchan Lakshman is Research Fellow, Institute for Conflict Management;
Assistant Editor, Faultlines: Writings on Conflict & Resolution. Courtesy,
the South Asia Intelligence Review of the South Asia Terrorism Portal