COMMENTARY
 
The Battle for Pakistan
Weekly Pulse
October 17-23, 2008
The revival of democracy in Pakistan early this year had renewed public hopes that Taliban-led terrorism in the country might recede. There was indeed some respite in this violence, but only for a short period preceding the accession to power in March of the Pakistan People’s Party-led coalition government. Since then, home-grown Taliban have struck the country with a spate of unprecedented suicide attacks, leaving no choice for its new democratic leaders to respond with a full-blown security operation.

Frustrated in the face of intense military campaign currently underway in tribal regions bordering Afghanistan, Pakistani Taliban have brought their battle to cities and towns across the country by undertaking scores of targeted suicide bombings in recent months. The army’s success in tribal mountainous region has, at least for now, been counter-balanced by Taliban’s relative gain in the country’s settled areas.

In this battle for Pakistan, who will prevail? The State, striving to safeguard the country’s territorial integrity and preserve its multi-ethno-sectarian fabric; or the Taliban, wishing to impose their own brand of radical Islam in the Muslim world’s only nuclear power?

This question has regained value, as public expectations for positive conclusion of the country’s counter-terrorism campaign following this year’s historic shift from authoritarianism to democracy have been dashed by Taliban-led terrorist wave—which makes no distinction between a military regime and a civilian government, or a security personnel and a common man.

Olive Branch

In his inaugural address before the National Assembly in late March, Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani talked about a ‘comprehensive package’ to counter terrorism preferably through political dialogue and economic means. He offered a peace deal to Taliban if they surrendered arms, which was welcomed by Molvi Umar, the leader of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), even though he refused to accept the said precondition.

Then, in May, the Awami National Party (ANP) government of the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) concluded a peace deal with the Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e Muhammadi (TNSM) of the Malakand Division, an offshoot of Taliban which has been demanding the imposition of Shariah rule in the Division since mid-1990s.

That deal collapsed, as the PPP-led government in the Centre refused to own it. In fact, the same month the deal was concluded, the Federal government decided to intensify the security operation against Taliban and their tribal militant affiliates in South and North Waziristan agencies of the Federally-Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).

Hell Breaks Loose

Since then, all hell has broken loose across Pakistan. Scores of suicide bombings have hit major cities and towns, the most devastating of all being the bombing of the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad on September 20, which claimed over 50 civilian lives, including that of the Check envoy in the country.

Taliban attacks on security personnel in FATA and Swat Valley of Malakand have intensified, and Waziristan violence trickled down to relatively peaceful tribal agencies such as Khyber and Bajaur, located not that far from the power corridors of the Frontier government in Peshawar. Across the tribal region, Taliban have been on the rampage—burning schools, blocking bridges, destroying power generation units. And, in the rest of the country, their suicide bombers have been looking for high profile public targets to cause maximum damage of life and property.

The ripple effect of this terrorism is already significant. Never before have Pakistanis felt as insecure about their life and as uncertain about their future. Terrorists have succeeded in scuttling the renewed democratic process, derailing the business of government, and scaring away local and foreign investors. The government is worried about rampant capital flight, amid serious depletion in the country’s foreign reserves.

Localizing Conflict

Seven years ago, the War on Terror that the United States began against the Taliban regime might not have been Pakistan’s war. In January 2004, when Pakistan deployed some 80,000 troops in South and North Waziristan, it was still a security operation meant to prevent the alleged Taliban infiltration across the Durand Line, the unrecognized border between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

In fact, the Taliban threat did not assume an indigenous dimension as late as the summer of 2007, because, until then, the preference of the quasi-military regime of President-General Pervez Musharraf was to negotiate peace deals with local tribal Taliban—two of which were signed in 2005 and 2006 in South and North Waziristan, respectively—and it intensified security operation against Taliban only in desperation after facing severe US pressure.

It was Musharraf regime’s security operation on the Red Mosque in July 2007 that effectively led to the wave of suicide-bombing-laden terrorism by Taliban of Waziristan and TNSM militants of Swat initially against security forces deployed in the region and then against purely civilian targets.

Besides Molvi Umar, TNSM leader Maulana Fazalullah and Baitullah Mehsud, Taliban leader with close ties to al-Qaeda, Afghan Taliban and Uzbek militants orchestrated this terrorist wave, which eventually claimed the life of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto last December. The Musharraf regime accused Mehsud of involvement in the murder of Bhutto, which he denied.

However, Baitullah Mehsud did emerge as the main figure who unilaterally renounced the North Waziristan peace accord in response to the Red Mosque operation and threatened to fight against Pakistani security forces with thousands of militants and hundreds of suicide bombers at his disposal. With his declaration of open war against the state of Pakistan, what was perceived largely as an American war had increasingly gained indigenous dimension.

Perhaps that is why since assuming power the current leadership has consistently called this war as “Pakistan’s own.” On that basis, it has been able to justify intensifying the military operation against Taliban and TNSM militants, and a couple of other militant groups fighting for Shariah rule in Bajaur and Khyber but simultaneously engaged in tribal infighting.

However, two factors have complicated the ability of the current government to nationally own the fight against terrorism and neutralize the wider public perception about the country’s civil-military leadership fighting America’s war.

First, just as General Musharraf did, President Asif Ali Zardari has closely identified himself with the United States. During his recent trip to the United States, for instances, he asked for tens of billions of more US dollars to shore up his government’s ability to fight terrorism. This has renewed public fears about the country’s new leadership to be no different than its predecessor in terms of serving US interests in the War on Terror, perhaps more vigorously, at the expense of Pakistan’s own.

Second, since the resignation of Musharraf, Waziristan region has seen an unusual hype in cross-border US missile strikes and at least one ground assault. These attacks seem to have stirred anti-US nationalist sentiments in Pakistan, thereby complicating the ability of the country’s new rulers to portray the ongoing struggle against home-grown terrorists as truly serving national interests.

Changing Taliban Tactics

The Marriott bombing in Islamabad and several others before and after it essentially represent a continuity of the same terror process unleashed by Taliban and their militant allies in FATA and Swat Valley since the summer of last year, with a little respite on the eve of elections in February. This process aims to kill as many people and cause as much property damage as possible with the broader goal of terrorizing the general population, ruining the country’s economy, derailing the democratic process, and much else—and all of this is inherently motivated by Taliban’s pragmatic, real-politick ambition of capturing political power in nuclear-armed Pakistan.

In fact, in the past couple of months, Taliban tactics have gone a step ahead of targeting merely commoners on the streets—a pattern that prevailed throughout the later half of 2007 until early this year—to target-specific bombing, for instance, that of Pakistan Ordinance Factories in Wah Cant on August 21 and the attack on Marriott. Taliban and their militant affiliates seem to be increasingly testing the government’s resolve by attacking security and civilian institutions and personnel/leaders directly or indirectly involved in the current security operation against them, particularly in Bajaur and Swat.

The change in Taliban tactics may be an outcome of their consistent reversals in the face of an effective military campaign in FATA and Swat. Since Taliban are unable to fight with the security forces, whose number has also increased to over 130,000, inclusive of paramilitary units, they have chosen to attack high-profile public and government targets, including recent attempts to kill Prime Minister Gilani and ANP leader Asfandyar Wali, forcing the latter to flee the country. Even the Marriott attack took place close to the corridors of power in Islamabad.

Such militant backlash by Taliban in Pakistani cities and towns indicates increasing frustration amid their ranks. As security operation against Taliban gains greater momentum in the tribal region, Taliban will face more military reversals at the hands of security forces and, consequently, undertake more of such targeted terrorist attacks in cities and towns.

Such reckless violence on their part, making no distinction between an armed security personnel and an innocent civilian, may eventually backfire, as more and more people are likely to oppose the use of terrorist means in the name of jihad and the counter’s security establishment will also harden the potential targets of terrorism.

Launching of Lashkars

The security operation against Taliban currently under way in Bajaur is turning out to be a major success story for the army for two reasons. One, it is being undertaken with full intensity, without any break. It is a sustained military effort aimed at destroying as many Taliban targets as possible and guided by the philosophy of building upon previous successes until a total success is achieved from the military standpoint.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, the country’s security establishment has started practicing what was never practiced before: an age-old tactic suitable for winning a tribal war; that of, incorporating Pashtun tribesmen in the security campaign against Taliban. It is no surprise that the pursuit of this approach has enabled the Pakistani Army to gain sufficient ground in Bajaur and the Taliban are on the run from their strongholds there.

Five such local Lashkars have been formed at various places which were previous under Taliban control. These Lashkars have warned the supporters of Taliban and have burnt down the houses. Unsurprisingly, Taliban have reacted to this creative new strategy on the part of the security establishment; for instance, through a recent suicide attack on a tribal jirga in Hangu, which killed over 100 people.

However, had the Lashkar option been exercised in the past, we might not have seen the momentum that Taliban militant movement gained in the last over one year. Given that, the new civilian leadership seems to have made a difference by opting for such a course of action, which was missing as long as General Musharraf remained in power.

The present government is also in no mood to negotiate any peace deal with Taliban unless they surrender arms. In fact, there was a familiar pattern in the past, whereby security forces would launch a forceful operation against Taliban, forcing them to call for a dialogue. The government would also then try to appease Taliban. This would give Taliban enough time to re-energize and then renew their terrorist campaign.

This time again, as security operation intensified, Baitullah Mehsud called for dialogue. Days before that, he had warn the Frontier government leadership to leave Peshawar within five days or face the Taliban assault. The Federal government ignored his offer, just as the Frontier leadership ignored his threat. Instead, military operation against Taliban was stepped up. For the first time, Pakistan Air Force became fully operational and successfully pounded the militant hideouts.

Mehsud himself is reportedly extremely sick and does not seem to wield the same power over Taliban as he did until recently. He is accused of sponsoring the recent killing of Haji Namdar in the tribal Khyber region, and some Taliban factions oppose Mehsud’s stand on providing sanctuary to al-Qaeda and Uzbek militants. The Mullah Nazir faction had, in fact, fought and defeated the Uzbek fighters in South Waziristan in March 2007.

The continuing intensification of the Army-led security operation in tribal areas, with a corresponding civilian government’s attempt to take the US in confidence over the issue of cross-border Taliban infiltration into Afghanistan, will be crucial in tackling the terrorist threat from Taliban. In the meantime, however, Pakistanis have no choice but to face more rounds of suicide bombings by Taliban in their towns and cities.

As for tackling the Taliban phenomenon once and for all, even though the civilian government has no other choice now but to tackle the immediate Taliban threat with immediate means, which cannot be anything but military; given its democratic nature, it must prefer a long-term solution to this volatile problem. The jihadi mentality took over three decades to influence public mind in Pakistan. Taliban’s reckless terrorism is creating a different mindset, which opposes the use of terror no matter how genuine a political cause may be. It is this transformation in public opinion that a civilian democratic leadership has to capitalize upon in the days ahead, so as to reverse the Taliban phenomenon once and for all.

Ulema’s Fatwa

Another key requirement for winning the hearts and minds of people in the battle against terrorism is to involve the country’s ulemas in consistently clarifying as to what true spirit of Islam as a peaceful and tolerant faith is. An important step in this regard took place on Tuesday, when a meeting of Muttehadda Ulema Council held in Lahore issued a unanimous fatwa declaring suicide attacks in Pakistan as haram (unlawful) and najaez (unjustified) under Islam. The meeting held at Jamia Naeemia was attended by ulema from Jamaat Ahl-e-Sunnat, Ahle Tashee, Ahle Hadees, and the Deobandi and Barelvi schools of thought. While declaring suicide attacks as un-Islamic, the members of the Muttahida Ulema Council called on the government to prevent such attacks. The clerics also said the government should stop operations in Pakistan's tribal areas and conduct negotiations with people there to end militancy.

The Council meeting, which was chaired by Maulana Sarfaraz Naeemi, said it was the government’s responsibility to call for a jihad or holy war, and any person or groups that have called for jihad had acted by themselves and this was not correct. A majority of the clerics spoke out against calls for jihad by certain groups. Earlier, a number of leading clerics in Saudi Arabia, including the Imam of Ka’aba, have issued similar fatwas. Likewise, Dr Fadl, the known Egyptian fundamentalist and a former ideologue of al-Qaeda movement, has also condemned terrorism in the name of Islam.

Such a fatwa should have been issued long ago, and the reason it is being issued now may be an outcome of the democratic transformation the country has seen this year. The same factor, as stated before explains the recent launching of tribal Lashkars as a counterpoise to Taliban militarism in the tribal region.

Final Thoughts

The role of civilian democratic leadership of Pakistan, particularly that of President Asif Ali Zardari, in turning the tables against Taliban will be crucial. The government will have to continue exploring and exercising new creative options in combating Taliban-led and al-Qaeda-inspired terrorism in the country.

At the same time, the security operation in the tribal region should continue gaining momentum to keep the pressure on the Taliban militant movement there. Any lapse in this operation would amount to appeasing the hardcore Taliban and reversing the military gains against them. The whole point is breaking the resolve of the Taliban to fight. In fact, the more we press them militarily, the greater will be their willingness to negotiate and readiness to surrender arms.

As discussed before, the Taliban are likely to respond to the intense military campaign in tribal areas with more suicide attacks in mainstream Pakistan. But this is a response undertaken in frustration and desperation, and, therefore, it cannot last long.

Once Taliban are beaten up sufficiently, and the public sympathies for their terrorist cause also erode fast, then they are likely to disassociate themselves from the regressive and terrorist path advocated by terror networks like al-Qaeda. It is only then any peace talks between Afghan or Pakistani government and Taliban-led insurgents, such as the one recently sponsored by Saudi Arabia between Afghan government representatives and representatives of Taliban and other insurgents, will have a positive outcome.

Access column at weeklypulse.org