COMMENTARY
 
Pakistan Army's Offensive to ‘Eliminate’ Taliban
Weekly Pulse
May 1-7, 2009
In the past couple of weeks, Pakistan Army has launched a massive military action against Taliban in Lower Dir district and Buner regions adjacent to Swat Valley in the Malakand Division. The offensive, which has claimed scores of militant lives, has been successful from start. On April 27, Pakistan military spokesman Maj Gen Athar Abbas claimed that paramilitary Frontier Constabulary (FC) troops leading the offensive had pushed Taliban out of Lower Dir.

On April 28, the military spokesman announced the start of the second stage of the offensive in Buner, while declaring that “the aim of the offensive is to eliminate and expel militants from Buner.” Military and independent sources later confirmed that besides paramilitary troops and heavy artillery, gunship helicopters were employed to hit Taliban targets.

Pakistani offensive against Taliban comes a couple of months after the conclusion of a peace agreement between the government and Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Muhammadi (TNSM), a Taliban militant organization based in the Malakand Division. Under the deal, initially concluded in February between TNSM and the ANP-led government in the Frontier province, Taliban were supposed to renounce violence in exchange for the implementation of Nizam-e-Adl in Malakand division.

Flawed Deal

The Nizam-e-Adl legislation was later hurriedly approved by national parliament and, afterwards, signed by President Asif Ali Zardari. Since the government’s deal with the TNSM had come into being after a series of terrorist acts by Taliban, it was widely viewed, especially by the outside world, as the government’s capitulation to the terrorists. However, in its defense, the government argued that by signing this accord, it wanted to give peace in the Swat Valley a chance.

Whatever the case, the fact is that the other side of the peace process, the TNSM, failed to keep its promise. Taliban militants used the ceasefire generated by the governmental approval of Nizam-e-Adl, to send fighters from Swat into neighbouring districts such as Dir and Buner, an area only 60 miles from Islamabad. On April 25, TNSM fighters forcibly stopped and prevented a military convoyed heading towards Swat Valley.

Meanwhile, a number of Taliban leaders, including Sufi Muhammad, Maulvi Faqir and Muslim Khan, pledged to expand their jihadi cause to the rest of Pakistan, even issuing a deadline to the government to introduce Sharia laws across the country. It was absolutely clear, therefore, that TNSM’s Taliban leadership’s ambitions were not just confined to securing Sharia law in the Malakand Division; instead, they were motivated by a larger goal of capturing political power in the country.

That explains why these leaders had started threatening their final assault on the country’s capital, and this also confirmed that they were being driven by al-Qaeda. The extent of Taliban’s military preparedness was clear from Tuesday’s press conference by Maj Gen Athar, who claimed that April 25’s withdrawal of Taliban from Buner was only in name, as the militants had dug trenches in the mountainous area and were preparing for a long battle with government troops.

As of this past week, therefore, the situation has become very clear, as the widespread public fears that the government’s conclusion of a peace deal with the TNSM and consequent introduction of Nizam-e Adl in the Malakand Division had emboldened the Taliban were confirmed by the consistent pursuit of the jihadi expansionist agenda by militant Taliban leaders and their followers in the region.

That some government leaders, including Interior Minister Rehman Malik and Information Minister Kaira, were still appealing to the militant leadership to lay down their arms for the sake of peace was, thus, quite unfortunate. For once a resolute military action against the forces who have a serial record of violating the writ of the state begins, there should be no respite in its until its declared aim of “expelling and eliminating militants”—to use General Athar’s words—from the zone of operation is achieved.

Since mid-2007 Pakistan has faced a full-fledged al-Qaeda-inspired, Taliban-led and terrorism-ridden insurgency, claiming close to 2000 innocent lives, the largest civilian loss of a country in the world at the hands of religiously-motivated terrorists. The dilemma facing the civilian government, since its coming to power in March 2008, was how to tackle a worsening security quagmire without using military power arbitrarily.

Offensive Justified

All democratic governments would prefer dialogue over the use of force to combat home-grown insurgencies. Therefore, last year’s parliamentary resolution, which recommended dialogue with Taliban, as a preferred option made sense. The same logic may apply to the Swat peace deal and introduction of Nizam-e-Adl in the Malakand Division.

But, then, the bitter reality is that the other side, the Taliban, is not guided by democratic norms. Taliban operate on the basis of Fascist principles. They resent secularism, which simply means the right of people to live in accordance with their beliefs and ways of life. Taliban preach extremism, which is nothing but the imposition of a particular belief and way of life on others.

Taliban reject the basic norms of modernity, such as the right of girls to education, while hypocritically benefiting from the blessings of modernity such as communication through mobile phone and FM radio. They reject the essence of modernity, which is to raise questions and have rational worldview. They want to impose backwardness, and try to create homogeneity in society on the basis of this backwardness.

Taliban basically represent tribal Pashtun tradition, which they want to impose on the majority of Pakistani people in the name of Sharia. It may be true Taliban are thriving on socio-economic disparities in the tribal region, and these disparities are being violently expressed just as it is the case with the violent Nexalite movement in north-east India. But Taliban are much more than their Nexalite insurgent counterparts in India. The means they employ, such as suicide bombing, and the targets they choose, unarmed civilians, qualify make to be branded nothing else but outright terrorists. Therefore, no country, no people, no law, and no moral or political cause would justify what they say or do.

Glimmer of Hope

Given that, Pakistan’s military offensive against Taliban in Lower Dir and Buner, even if it has been launched a bit late, is justified both legally and morally. This offensive has to continue, with the employment of both ground operations and air strikes. Taliban pose two kinds of security threat. First, they engage in combat with the security forces in tribal areas. Second, they undertake acts of terrorism, including suicide bombings across Pakistan.

As far as the first threat is concerned, it can only be countered through an effective counter-insurgency campaign. As the paramilitary forces and jet fighters engage in such a campaign, they should make sure that the civilian loss or collateral damage of the ground and air operations should be minimal. Otherwise, the counter-insurgency campaign may backfire.

As for the second threat from Taliban, that of terrorism-laden with suicide bombings probably gaining momentum in coming days or weeks across the country, it can also be countered, if not fully but at least considerably, by tightening security across Pakistan, especially major cities like Lahore, Islamabad, Peshawar and Karachi.

If, despite the adoption of such heightened security measures, spectacular acts of terrorist still occurred—as they did in the past two years—then their destructive impact both in men and material would no doubt be massive. But at least we could be sure about their eventual political outcome as far as the turning of the tides against Taliban and their violent jihadi cause in wider Pakistani public opinion and civil society is concerned.

Already people in Pakistan in general and the country’s civil society activists in particular seem to have woken up to realize the mortality of the danger confronting Pakistan from Taliban and their al-Qaeda and other terrorist affiliated. Countrywide rallies against the declaration of a Sharia-like law in Swat Valley in the past two months were followed up his past week by civil society protests in the city of Lahore, with the leaders of the rally expressing their support to the civilian government to take a resolute action against Taliban in the mountainous areas and stop and finish their jihadi expansionism right there.

Slowly but surely, the religious leadership of the country, including the new Emir of Jama’at-e-Islami and right-wing political leaders like Imran Khan, have started to criticize TNSM leader Sufi Muhammad and his followers for acting contrary to the peaceful spirit of Islam. However, they are still not as categorical in their criticism as the situation demands, and their discourse still largely begins from drone attacks and ends on drone attacks.

Pakistani security forces have been operating in tribal regions against Taliban and other local and foreign terrorists since the start of 2004. They may have hesitated to go all out against local extremists and terrorists, thinking that wider Pakistani society sympathizes with them. That is no more the case. Once a security operation has genuine public backing, and the civilian leadership has also concluded that appeasement with religiously-motivated extremists and terrorists never works, then there is no question that the final battle against Taliban will not be won.

Access column at weeklypulse.org