Strategic Choice: Combating Taliban Threat in FATA
Weekly Pulse
September 19-25, 2008
This month has seen more direct US incursions in Pakistan’s tribal areas, including the first-ever ground assault in Angor Adda village of south Waziristan, than any time in recent years, during which Bush administration officials have consistently suspected the country’s role in combating terrorism in the region. If, on the one hand, Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) is accused of covertly assisting the Taliban; on the other, the country’s army is blamed for serious lapses in its military operations in FATA and Swat regions. Besides Bush administration officials, US media and Afghan government have cast aspersions on Pakistan’s commitment to fight terrorism in the region.

But this is an old story now. Such criticism began almost a year after Pakistan launched a full-fledged military operation with almost 80, 000 troops in the region in the spring of 2004, after making an enormous contribution to stabilizing post-Taliban Afghanistan during late 2001-2003, including the capture of scores of al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders and activists and their extradition to the United States, and providing the due logistical, security, political and economic help that proved crucial in sustaining the post-Taliban political process in Afghanistan.

Backdrop to Attacks

Besides undertaking the military operation, the Pakistan army concluded two accords with the Taliban jirga in south and north Waziristan, in March 2005 and September 2006, respectively. It was in the aftermath of these accords, particularly the second one, that US and Afghan allegations about Pakistan not “doing enough” or the ISI covertly assisting the Taliban started to surface.

On the surface, these accords only reinforced Pakistan’s preference for negotiating peace with moderate Taliban with the intention of isolating them from Taliban hardliners and their al-Qaeda allies. In the aftermath of September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks against the United States until the war against Taliban began on October 7, 2001, Pakistan’s leadership had engaged in hectic back-and-forth diplomacy to incorporate moderate Taliban in the governance of Afghanistan. However, the enormity of the 9/11 terrorist incident, and the intransigence of Taliban hardliners, was such that Pakistan’s efforts in this regard failed.

The accords in south and north Waziristan were grounded in realistic compromises. The government of Pakistan was to halt the military operation, release Taliban prisoners and provide financial compensation to Taliban, while the Taliban gave a commitment not to infiltrate the Durand Line and attack local and foreign forces in Afghanistan, and not to give refuge to any foreign militants, including Uzbeks and al-Qaeda members. While the south Waziristan accord collapsed after the US attack at a madrassa in Damadola village that killed 80, an air attack which was officially claimed by Pakistan, the north Waziristan agreement was revoked unilaterally in July last year by the Taliban jirga in reaction to the Red Mosque operation.

The period since then has seen the threat of Talibanization that was confined to FATA before spreading its tentacles to hitherto peaceful Swat valley, relatively stable areas of the Frontier province and even to major cities like Peshawar and Karachi. The victims of Taliban militancy are no more security personnel alone, hundreds of unarmed, innocent civilians have been killed in scores of suicide bombing incidents in the country’s major cities, including Lahore, Rawalpindi and Peshawar. It was amid this rising terrorist wave that the country lost its most promising leader, Benazir Bhutto.

The political transformation that has occurred in Pakistan this year, from nearly nine years of Musharraf-led military and quasi-military rule to a civilian-led democratic dispensation that has just taken full control of governmental affairs, is perhaps the most important development in the country insofar as its ability to proactively tackle the Taliban threat in FATA and Swat regions and all of its regional militaristic manifestations are concerned.

Conspiracy or Coincidence!

Coincidently, the surge in US attacks in south and north Waziristan has occurred during the weeks that have seen the completion of the democratic shift in Pakistan. In a country where conspiracies sell, some people, including ruling party leaders, perceive this as a US conspiracy to destabilize democracy. They argue that there was no such problem as long as Musharraf was ruling, asking why these attacks have intensified only after the resignation of Musharraf?

There are others who offer an additional coincidental explanation, pointing out the coming US elections as an important factor responsible for the recent hype in US attacks in Pakistan’s tribal regions. Already a number of stories in US media have appeared suggesting that the Bush Administration wants to kill or capture a high-value target, either al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden or his number two Ayman al-Zawahiri, through intensifying US air and ground operations in FATA.

Guided by the neo-conservative agenda, the Bush administration waged the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq in the aftermath of 9/11. While the United States has gained relative success in Iraq, Afghanistan continues to be a foreign policy failure for the Bush administration. This failure is caused less by al-Qaeda, which was decimated in the initial years of the war in Afghanistan, and more by the Taliban and their militant allies like Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Jalaluddin Haqqani. Still the capture or killing of top al-Qaeda leaders, allegedly hiding in mountainous region straddling the Durand Line, will be a huge symbolic victory for the neo-conservative US Republication leadership, especially in terms of increasing the chances of victory of its Presidential candidate John McCain in the November US Presidential elections.

Tacit Understanding

Leaving aside conspiratorial or coincidental public explanations of the recent surge in cross-border US attacks in north and south Waziristan, their backdrop dating back to the conclusion of south and north Waziristan deals and the US reaction to them, as narrated above, seems to suggest that these attacks have not happened in a vacuum.

Throughout the Musharraf era, there was always a tacit understand between the United States and Pakistan about how to jointly combat the Taliban threat on Pakistani side of the Durand Line. It is true that much of the cooperation for the purpose between the two countries took place either within the tri-partite Pak-Afghan-NATO/US commission or bilaterally between US and Pak security forces, whereby US forces were given limited airspace combat role provided there was an actionable intelligence. The 2005 Damadola attack and another cross-border US strike in Bajaur in 2006 took place as part of this understanding.

Simultaneously, however, with each passing month since the start of 2007, Bush administration officials and US media have upped the ante insofar as US and Afghan suspicions about Pakistan’s so-called double-dealing in tackling the Taliban threat in tribal regions are concerned.

The Bush administration had also sponsored the political change in Pakistan with the hope that its new civilian leadership will help tackle this threat more effectively. The death of Benazir Bhutto, who had assured the United States that Pakistan would “do more” to meet US expectations from it in the War on Terror, might have been a blow to the US-sponsored deal to create a moderate civilian front against terrorism, by overcoming domestic security hurdles, including the alleged covert support from the country’s intelligence service.

However, despite Bhutto’s assassination, the country today is led by the same moderate front, with the ruling Pakistan People’s Party having both the posts of the President and the Prime Minister and their allies range from Muhajir Qaumi Movement in Sindh to Awami National Party (ANP) in the Frontier, both known for their liberal religious credentials.

Issue of Sovereignty

It is also a fact that the PPP-led coalition government has rejuvenated the security operation in FATA and Swat even during Musharraf’s days as President. So much so that the May agreement which the ANP concluded with the Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Muhammadi in Swat on the lines of earlier accords in south and north Waziristan agencies was instantly disowned by Rehman Malik, the government’s interior affairs advisor and the country’s emerging counter-terrorism czar.

Interestingly, just as US attacks in tribal region have gained unprecedented momentum, Pakistani security operation in FATA, currently in Bajaur, and Swat valley has been in full gear. If we presume Pakistan and the United States cooperate closely in the War on Terror, a sudden hype in US attacks in the tribal belt can be justified only if the former is not doing enough. But the same cannot make any sense when the country has indeed started to proactively tackle the Taliban threat.

This has happened only when the new civilian leadership has realized that the Taliban threat is first and foremost a national security threat to the country, and that is why the War on Terror is first and foremost Pakistan’s own war. The hype in US attacks in the country’s tribal regions, whether it is motivated by electoral considerations of the Republican leadership or caused by Indian or pro-Indian Afghan leadership’s manipulation of US sensitivities regarding the counter-terrorism effort in the region, will most certainly fuel anti-Americanism in Pakistan and reinforce the lingering public perception about the country fighting essentially America’s war.

Sovereignty is an equally important issue for both the civilian and military leadership in the country. A military or a military regime, due to its dictatorial nature, may contain the public enrage that results from incidents of violation of sovereignty, as it did in the case of Damadola and Bajaur attacks in 2005 and 2006, even to the extent of owning them. Since the civilian leadership is rooted in the people, it cannot ignore the public fallout that results from such incidents, especially if their recurrence level is high, as has been the case in recent weeks.

Fallout on Civilians

The issue of sovereignty becomes more acute if we take into consideration historical complexities in Pakistan’s civil-military relationship. Pakistan’s army chief General Ashfaq Parvaiz Kayani has already issued a hard hitting statement, warning the United States against taking any further air or ground operation in tribal region. The military spokesman has more than once said the right to act against extremists is Pakistan’s alone, and that the country has the option of retaliating in case sovereignty was violated by US forces again. The civilian leadership, including Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani and Defence Minister Ahmad Mukhtar, has made similar remarks. Obviously, given the precarious nature of civil-military ties in the country, the political leadership cannot be expected to be less nationalistic and patriotic than its military counterpart.

Of course, just like the Musharraf-led regime, the PPP-led civilian government would like to cooperate with the United States in the War on Terror. This is because it considers this cooperation vital for Pakistan’s security and economic needs. That is why the obvious preference of the current political leadership is to take the US in confidence on the matter, assuring Washington that its concerns would be addressed within the available bilateral and multilateral mechanisms for intelligence sharing and security operation on the basis of actionable intelligence.

While US aerial assaults have taken place in the past, the key difference now is that not only their intensity has increased but they have been accompanied by the first-ever ground operation by US forces in the tribal belt. On Monday, there were speculations that another such incident targeting the same area in south Waziristan was aborted after firing by Pakistani forces.

If the incident was really confirmed, then it would be serious matter. Even the previous incident has created an impression as if the new political leadership in Pakistan has agreed to some new rules of engagement with the US for jointly combating the Taliban threat in FATA, something which the former has denied.

Turning the Tides

Overtime, Afghanistan has no doubt become a regional problem which needs a regional solution. This would mean that Pakistan becomes a part of the US/NATO strategy of fighting Taliban-led insurgency, whether it is in Afghanistan or in FATA. That would require the government in Islamabad to double and re-double its security campaign against the Taliban and their militaristic affiliates refusing to surrender the military option and cross-border infiltration into Afghanistan and attacks against Afghan and US/NATO forces there.

However, such a strategy would also require a rejuvenated effort, premised on earlier accords and the current efforts, for instance, in Bajaur, to cultivate moderates among the Taliban for peace by isolating them from hardliners and turning them against al-Qaeda and their sympathizers. A simultaneous effort has to be waged to bring about the power shift in FATA, from Mullahs to Maliks.

A civilian regime is the best guarantor of the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Negotiating peace with the moderates among the Taliban would mean that nobody from amongst them will cross the Durand Line and will understand due constraints of the state of Pakistan in a volatile situation like this. A militancy-free and peaceful Afghanistan is in everybody’s interest, more so in Pakistan’s interest—as it will open up enormous avenues for economic progress for the country through wide-ranging international activities revolving around making use of the vast untapped hydrocarbon resources of Central Asia.

Reversing the Taliban threat in FATA and Afghanistan is in Pakistan’s best national interest. Therefore, it should be our key strategic choice. And the same should be in the interest of every principal player engaged in securing and building Afghanistan. Even if the current hype in US operations in FATA is motivated by Republican leadership’s electoral considerations, the US elections are only a month and a half away.

Democratic Presidential candidate Barack Obama sounds tough on Afghanistan, especially when it comes to tackling the Taliban threat in FATA is concerned. However, once in power, he can be expected to cooperate with the civilian democratic leadership in Pakistan and explore as many ways as possible to jointly tackle the Taliban threat, whether it emanates from FATA or Afghanistan’s eastern and southern regions bordering Pakistan. The recent unusual hype in US attacks in the region has already damaged US-Pak ties enough, and this campaign must end forthwith, with Pakistan continuing its security operation with greater vigour and more creativity and the United States willing to forego its own previous suspicions and current concerns for the sake of stabilizing the country’s fragile democratic regime, which, unlike its predecessor, cannot be expected to thrive on creating the bogy of ‘jihadi’ power or sustaining the threat of religious extremism for the sake of prolonging it rule with support from the United States.

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