COMMENTARY
 
Moderate Coalition against Terrorism
Weekly Pulse
October 12-18, 2007
The security situation in Pakistan’s tribal region, particularly in North Waziristan agency, has never been as messy and dangerous as it has been in the past few months, especially this past week. 50 soldiers reported killed in one day alone, while the air operation, also the first of its kind, in the town of Mir Ali claimed scores of extremist, and allegedly civilian, casualties on the ground.

With US/NATO fight against Taliban in Afghanistan also faltering for a variety of reasons, the pro-Taliban forces in the tribal region are likely to embolden further, thereby compounding the security challenges facing over 90,000 soldiers deployed there.

We are, therefore, most likely to see a worsening quagmire in North Waziristan and other strife-ridden parts of the Federally-Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), with more soldiers losing their lives and a greater number of extremists dying in the security operations. The civilian loss in the “collateral damage” will constitute an additional figure.

There cannot be any two opinions about extremism and terrorism in the tribal areas constituting a “clear and present danger”—to use the nomenclature from US national security—against the state of Pakistan. It is a dangerous trend that has to reverse. But reversing it requires a holistic approach, encompassing both military and non-military strategic components.

In the past seven years, the regime of President-General Pervez Musharraf can rightfully claim a number of successes in its counter-extremism and counter-terrorism campaign. It has arrested, and delivered to the United States, the largest number of al Qaeda and Taliban militants, including top figures such as Khalid Sheikh Muhammad and Abu Zubaida.

Pakistan has deployed twice the number of security personnel in FATA than the grand total of US/NATO troops deployed in Afghanistan—over 90,000 against 35,000 NATO plus 8,000 US troops. In the past four years, Pakistan has suffered over 700 troops casualties against half the number of US/NATO troops in the last seven years.

Despite that, the Musharraf regime has consistently come under criticism from its partners in the War on Terror for not “doing more”, including the Afghan government of President Hamid Karzai, the NATO command in Afghanistan as well as the US administration of President George W Bush, the key sponsor of this war. Whenever the US/NATO/Afghan pressure has become unbearable, the Musharraf regime has acted in desperation, launching severe security operations such as the most recent one in Mir Ali, resulting in not just more troop casualties but also greater extremist and civilian losses. Consequently, the prevailing situation in North Wazirsitan and other strife-torn regions of FATA denotes a vicious circle, whereby more military operations lead to more human loss, including those of security personnel and extremists, with civilians also paying a huge price in the process.

This never-ending process seems to continue in the days and weeks ahead, as the Taliban-led militarism in Afghanistan is growing—an important factor fueling extremism and terrorism against Pakistani security forces in FATA, especially the North Waziristan agency. Since July 15, when the tribal jirga had unilaterally renounced the peace agreement with the government in response to the security operation on Lal Masjid in Islamabad, the suicide and road side bombings against security personnel in FATA and even settled regions of the Frontier province have intensified.

Pro-Taliban extremists in the tribal region have been encouraged by recent anti-Musharraf proclamations by al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. Given that, if the matter was only confined to Talibanization, the Musharraf regime could have contemplated options other than pure military operation, especially air-strikes. Since al Qaeda has also entered the game, the government of Pakistan is left with no option but to go for the surgical strikes against extremist targets.

The result was recently summed up by the Director General Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) Maj Gen Waheed Arshad, when he told the media that in just three days of security operation, some 150 extremists were killed and 45 security personnel lost their lives. Other media reports put the number much higher, including scores of civilian lives. Thousands of tribal people from North Waziristan, especially from Mir Ali, were reportedly fleeing from the region.

All of this is happening within a broader political background, with President Musharaf having been re-elected President for another five years, and Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan Peoples Party preparing to return to the country with a commitment she made before the Americans to “do more” in the country’s counter-terrorism effort.

One of the main reasons why the Musharaf regime was unable to deliver “more” in this counter-extremism and counter-terrorism struggle—insofar as American expectations from Pakistan for the purpose are concerned—is that his current political allies, especially the leader of the Pakistan Muslim League (Quaid) Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain and Religious Affairs Minister Ijazul Haq tried to sabotage some of the important anti-extremist steps that General Musharraf wanted to take. It was because of their opposition or lack-luster attitude that issues such as removing religious clause in national passport and freeing the country’s legal system from hudood ordinances altogether could not be settled. The PML (Q) leadership is also responsible for compounding the Jamia Hafsa and Lal Masjid crisis.

With the arrival of Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan, and especially if her party was able to perform well in the coming general elections, we can visualize a political scenario whereby President Musharraf will represent continuity in Pakistan’s counter-terrorism campaign, and Bhutto, provided she becomes Prime Minister for the third time, makes this campaign more vigorous, following through on her pre-election promises, especially motivated by winning the American support for her return to power in Pakistan.

Even if we have a new army chief in the person of General Kayani, who as ISI chief has personally contributed to counter-terrorism campaign and understands its peculiar complexities, Pakistan will have an ideal moderate coalition of civil-military leaders to handle the counter-extremism/terrorism task in a much more effective manner than before.

Since the PML (Q) has played an instrumental role in getting President Musharaf re-elected, we can safely presume that some of its current leadership will be a part of the political dispensation that the country will have after the coming elections. However, simultaneously, we can presume at this stage that President Musharraf will be realistic enough to give traditionally liberal political forces, such as the PPP, a try to let him overcome the problems he has faced in counter-extremism/terrorism from his current political allies.

However, even if we are able to have such an ideal moderate coalition of civil-military leaders in the country, there will be no escape from the intricate ground realities that characterize the extremist/terrorist problem in our tribal belt as well the numerous challenges that afflict Karzai-led government in Afghanistan and US/NATO operations there.

FATA is a region, which even the mightiest of all British Empire was unable to govern directly. The last seven years have seen a drastic transformation there, whereby the power has shifted from the traditional Maliks to resurgent Mullahs. This has happened directly as a result of military operations on both sides of the Durand Line.

Interestingly, pro-Taliban forces in FATA not only consist of local extremists but also foreign elements, and even pure criminal people for whom semi-autonomous FATA has traditionally been a sanctuary, where they can escape Pakistani law. Al-Qaeda’s intrusion in the region is perhaps the most dangerous factor, complicating its security predicament.

In the light of the above, although the choices available for a moderate civil-military coalition against extremism and terrorism in Pakistan in 2008 and beyond will be wider, but they will be constrained by the same factors that have thus far limited Musharaf regime’s counter-extremist/terrorist effort in FATA.

The challenge facing the duo of President Musharraf and Prime Minister Bhutto will again be whether to resort to force alone or adopt a mix of forceful and peaceful tactics or counter extremism and terrorism only through the pursuit of peaceful measures. The US preference may still be for the use-of-force option, but then, as stated before, such a policy will most likely perpetuate the “vicious circle” that characterizes the prevailing reality in FATA today.