COMMENTARY
 
The Hunt for Pakistan's 'Most Wanted Terrorist'
Weekly Pulse
June 19-25, 2009
In October last year, the Muttehadda Ulema Council, consisting of a dozen leading ulema from Jamaat Ahl-e-Sunnat, Ahle Tashee, Ahle Hadees, and Deobandi and Barelvi schools of thought in Pakistan met under the leadership of Maulana Sarfaraz Naeemi at Jamia Naeemia in Lahore and unanimously issued a fatwa declaring suicide attacks as haram (unlawful) and najaez (unjustified) under Islam. Although scores of such fatwas had been issued before by ulema in Saudi Arabia, Indonesia and Egypt to de-legitimize terrorism in the name of Islam, this was the first time that a group of Islamic scholars had denounced suicide bombings in the country. On June 14 came the terrorist response from Baitullah Mehsud, the chief of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan and the country’s “Most Wanted Terrorist”: a suicide bomber dispatched by Baitullah blew himself up inside the Jamia Naeemia office of Dr Naeemi moments after the Friday prayers, killing the Maulana and some of his fellows. ‘Enough is Enough” said Pakistan’s civilian and military leaders, and they unanimously resolved to undertake the final showdown against Baitullah and his terrorist henchman in South Waziristan. The operation that has just begun may be fraught with risks, but it is worth the price: for the cost of sparing the terrorists for whatever reason at this moment is simply unaffordable for the state and society of Pakistan.

The assassination of Maulana Neemi is not the first high profile terrorist act sponsored by Baitullah Mehsud. In the evening of 28th December 2007, Brig Javed Cheema, the head of Pakistan’s Crisis Management Cell, revealed before a mass of press corps in Islamabad a taped phone conversation between Baitullah and another Taliban commander, in which the two congratulated each other on the successful assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto a day before. Mehsud never claimed responsibility for killing Ms Bhutto, but he did accept responsibility for the spectacular terrorist attack on a police academy in Lahore in March this year, which had all the hallmarks of another combat-style terrorist attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team earlier this year. This month alone, he has claimed responsibility for five more terrorist attacks, including the bombing of Pearl Continental Hotel in Peshawar. As of now, the supreme leader of Pakistani Taliban is responsible for the death of 1,200 civilians and several hundred soldiers, mostly through suicide bombings.

Until recently, Pakistani state establishment had drawn a limit whenever the question of exercising the military option in tribal areas arose. Partly for strategic reasons and partly to avoid tribal backlash in a historically autonomous region, it preferred to negotiate rather than take military action. The declaration of Nizam-e-Adl in Swat in March this year was a similar bid to appease the pro-Taliban Tehrik-e-Nifiaz-e-Shariat-e-Muhammadi, and three controversial peace deals with Baitullah Mehsud in 2004, 2005, and 2008 were concluded with the same purpose. Each time, however, the terrorist leadership in Swat and Waziristan perceived such overtures as a sign of weakness on the part of the state and the government. Within weeks of the declaration of Nizam-e-Adl in Swat, Taliban were descending from the mountains of Buner towards Islamabad.

It was in this backdrop that the army with full backing of the civilian government began its Operation Rah-e-Rast on March 26th in Buner and Dir districts, and then extended it to the Swat Valley. Even though the security operation, involving the Frontier Constabulary (FC) and army troops, and air force, has not yet been officially extended to South Waziristan, but its initial signs are already visible in the last few days. Since Monday security forces have been using heavy artillery to pound Taliban terrorist targets in Kotkai, Spainkai, Raghzai and Srarogha areas of South Waziristan, and there are also reports of air-strikes there. Last week, air force jets had also struck Makeen, a key trade centre of Mehsud tribe in South Waziristan, in response to the terrorist assassination of Dr Naeemi. This is besides a number of US drone attacks in the region, which have intensified since late March, when the Obama administration announced a $5m reward for information leading to the capture of Baitullah Mehsud, termed by Washington as a "key al-Qaeda facilitator."

Battle Lines

By undertaking scores of lethal terrorist attacks, and claiming responsibility for most of them in the last three years, Baitullah Mehsud has firmly proven his enmity against Pakistan and its people. No surprise that on Sunday the Frontier Governor Owais Ghani declared him as "the root cause of all evils” and disclosed the government’s decision to call on the army to launch a "full-fledged" military operation to eliminate Mehsud and his estimated 20,000 militiamen.

Governor Ghani said: “It has been decided that a comprehensive and decisive operation will be launched to eliminate Baitullah Mehsud and dismantle his network … we have repeatedly warned the Mehsud tribe through tribal elders to give up their miscreant activities and advised them not to shelter foreign militants. The government will not tolerate any act against the security of the people’s lives and property at any cost…They kept on their miscreant activities and continued to harbour terrorists. As a result, many people have lost their lives in suicide attacks in Lahore, Peshawar, Islamabad and today [June 14] in Dera Ismail Khan.”

The civilian governmental leadership is constitutionally required to authorize the use of force in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. A notification has since been issued under the Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR) to authorize the arrest of Mehsud tribesmen and seizure of their properties.

Such action comes under the FCR clause pertaining to “collective responsibility,” meaning if the leader of the tribe engages in any anti-state, violent or criminal activity, then the whole tribe has to pay the price. However, in this particular case, the ordering of a military assault on the Mehsud tribe does not mean that a section of the Mehsud and its leadership who has recently turned anti-Baitullah because of his terrorist activities will also be punished.

The decision to launch a full-fledged military campaign in South Waziristan represents the next, probably most crucial stage of Operation Rah-e-Rast, but it also signals a deepening resolve on the part of Pakistani civilian and military leadership to combat Taliban terrorism. The army enjoys the full backing of the civilian government for the said operation, and a spate of suicidal terrorist attacks killing thousands of security personnel and unarmed civilians has also turned the public opinion effectively against Taliban. The army, therefore, no more faces the two major domestic constraints to undertake a resolute counter-insurgency campaign against terrorist-insurgents. The government owns it publicly, and public opinion supports it largely.

Encouraged by these positive developments, the army leadership has also come out publicly in denouncing Baitullah Mehsud and the forces terrorizing Pakistanis abusing the name of Islam. By sponsoring the killing of Maulana Naeemi, one of the most respective ulema of the country, Baitullah has forced the army to conclude: enough is enough. The Maulana was also deeply respected by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, whose centre-right PML-N party can be expected to be more vocal in its condemnation of terrorism and supportive of an all-out military action in South Waziristan. The battle lines are, therefore, absolutely clear now between the state of Pakistan and its Taliban terrorist enemies.

In recent days, Chief of Army Staff Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani has also spoken his mind and heart against Taliban insurgents and terrorists. While addressing a ceremony of Pakistan Air Force in Sargodha on Monday, he said Baitullah Mehsud was not a religious scholar, adding that he and his supporters “are not fighting for Islam. Pakistan was created in the name of Islam and we know how to protect it.” “More than 100 soldiers have lost their lives in the war. Their sacrifices would not go in vain and the militants will be completely wiped out,” declared the Army Chief. “We will not end operation Rah-e-Rast until all the militants are defeated.”

A Long Haul

The battle against Mehsud and his estimated 20,000 force of Taliban, besides thousands of Arab and Uzbek members of al-Qaeda will be long, bloody and tough. South Waziristan’s rugged mountainous terrain, as compared to partly settled Malakand Division, parts of which are experiencing the battle now, will complicate the counter-insurgency mission. For years, Taliban forces are well-entrenched there, and the region also borders Afghanistan is also believed to house al-Qaeda leaders Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri.

However, the army is likely to follow the same three-pronged strategy of “clear, hold and build,” as it has in the Swat phase of Operation Rah-e-Rast. The first prong of this strategy is currently under way, and its most complicated aspect pertains to minimizing the collateral damage from ground operations and air assaults. But Pakistani security agencies must have the required human intelligence in Swat and Waziristan to achieve this goal, and prevent terrorist recruitment as an unintended consequence of counter-insurgency missions.

The first stage of the operation, therefore, has to be very quick in terms of accomplishing its primary objective of retaking the territory in a manner that there is less and less civilian casualties and terrorists are denied the opportunity to secure the sympathy of the wider population in South Waziristan.

The good news is that the army has made significant inroads into the territory held early by TNSM and Taliban terrorists in the Swat Valley and elsewhere in the Malakand Division. Regarding operation Rah-e-Rast, General Kayani had remarked on June 4 that the army had "decisively turned the tide" against the Taliban in Swat and adjoining districts—as major "population centers and roads leading to the valley have been largely cleared of organized resistance by the Taliban." Two days later, Lt. Gen Nadeem Ahmed, the Chairman of the Special Support Group, disclosed that Taliban leadership's contacts with low-ranking commanders in Swat had been disrupted, and that their recruitment and training centers were no more operational.

A crucial important requirement at this stage is to undertake credible efforts to decapitate the terrorist-insurgents. Speculations are that Maulana Fazalullah, the terrorist leader of TNSM, may have died in the ongoing military assault in Swat. If such rumors turn out to be true, then this will render a mortal blow to the pro-Taliban movement in the Malakand Division. A similar decapitation strategy has to be pursued in South Waziristan, as everything seems to be revolving around the leadership of Baitullah Mehsud. If he is physically eliminated from the scene, then the army would have accomplished half of the task in South Waziristan.

But just as the fight against Taliban in South Waziristan will be difficult, killing their leadership won’t be that easy. Two previous military operations failed to cause a dent in Baitullah’s ranks. On the contrary, they turned the militant commander into a mythical figure who has at his disposal an arsenal of suicide bombers, who can engage in the most lethal of all guerrilla tactics and undertake a spree of ambushes against the advancing army.

However, as Pakistan army advances towards South Waziristan and the United States raises its troop numbers across the Durand Line, then there may arise a possibility somewhere down the lane of the intensified counter-insurgency campaigns on both sides of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border to sand-witch the fleeing Taliban and al-Qaeda terrorists and exterminate them once and for all.

The United States seems to be willing to cooperate more closely with Pakistan in the coming months. US Central Command chief Gen David Petraeus said on Monday that Pakistanis “see very clearly the existential threat that is posed to their country by the extremists.” The Obama administration has hailed the country’s ongoing operation against Taliban several times since it began on April 26.

Tribal Divide

Besides coordinating its counter-terrorist operation in South Waziristan and elsewhere in FATA with US and NATO command engaged in a similar effort across the Durand Line, the army command and civilian backers of its operation in Swat and beyond would have to explore other creative and realistic options, such as fostering divisions in the ranks of the Taliban.

The same strategy was employed in Bajaur last year, when the tribal Lashkars were launched against the Taliban, and more recently in Buner the exercise of the same option has started to make a difference. There is already an emerging tribal context for the purpose, with the creation of an anti-Baitullah Mehsud alliance between two prominent Mehsud tribal figures, Turkistan and Qari Zainuddin, both have split from the former in reaction to his sponsorship of the wanton terror campaign against fellow Pakistanis.

Like Baitullah, Zainuddin has led a militant group once commanded by Abdullah Mehsud—a one-legged fiery fighter and former Guantanamo detainee, who was killed in a commando action in Zhob, Balochistan, in July 2006. Zainuddin blames Baitullah for orchestrating the death. Turkistan, a veteran of the Afghan war, left Baitullah after the reported slaughter of some personnel of the Frontier Corps, for which he had himself rendered services.

Both the Mehsud tribal leaders have recently started to question Baitullah’s leadership of the Mehsud tribe. While the army intensifies its punitive campaign against Taliban led by Pakistan’s most wanted terrorists, the government needs to exploit the fast emerging contest for leadership amid the ranks of the Mehsuds. However, immoral it may appear, but such cultivation of anti-Baitullah elements among the Mehsuds will help erode the tribal base of Baitullah’s terrorist infrastructure.

Terrorist Backlash

The army has to succeed in its battle against the Taliban at all costs. For the cost of failure is simply unaffordable for it as well as the country as a whole. However, for this, the government has to be firm in fully backing the military operation and engaging in a widespread campaign to generate political consensus and public opinion in support of what can be described as the final showdown against Taliban terrorists in Pakistan.

We must understand that Baitullah Mehsud is capable of everything. If he can allegedly kill Benazir Bhutto and Maulana Naeemi, and if his terrorist followers can go to the extent of even negating traditional terrorist practices by engaging in open combat with the security forces twice this year in Lahore, then he is surely capable of doing much more—especially in a situation when his own life is increasingly on the line.

There might be more deadly attacks across the country. The indiscriminate terrorist attacks that we see every now and then in Dera Ismail Khan, where the prime target is the same as al-Qaeda always chooses—unarmed civilians—may be replicated across other cities of the country.

Baitullah has thus far preferred to sponsor terrorism against security and leadership targets. Out of desperation and frustration, he is likely to emulate al-Qaeda and order suicidal terrorism against people in the street. These are all the possibilities to tackle which the government has to adopt as strict security measures across major cities of the country as it has taken in the Federal capital. Tighter security arrangements are a successful hedge against terrorism. They even help to preempt and prevent suicide bombings

The operation in South Waziristan may also generate another million-plus displaced people, in addition to the nearly three millions who had to leave their homes and hearths from Bajaur and more recently from Buner, Dir and the Swat valley. However, in each such tragic consequence of a counter-insurgency/terrorism operation, there is always a unique opportunity for the government. If the displaced people from areas ridden with terrorism are decently-treated, fully-fed and properly-sheltered, then the likes of Baitullah can never exploit their raw and ignorant minds to fuel their deadly game.

Access column at weeklypulse.org