COMMENTARY
 
In Pakistan, the Tide Finally Turns against Taliban
Weekly Pulse
July 10-16, 2009
For years after the start of the War on Terror in Afghanistan in October 2001, the United States complained Pakistan was not “doing enough” in this war. Quite commonly, US officials, Afghan leaders and Western media would suspect the role of Pakistani security establishment, especially the country’s intelligence service, accusing it of covertly hobnobbing with the Taliban, who were crossing the Durand Line from their bases in tribal areas to fuel al-Qaeda-inspired insurgency in Afghanistan. The pro-Taliban public opinion and the lack of governmental commitment were often cited as major reasons for Pakistan’s inability to effectively contribute to international counter-terrorism campaign in the region. In just three months, the discourse on the battle against Taliban has drastically changed. Not only are noticeable shifts in Pakistan’s perceptions of the threat from Taliban and their terrorist allies, and its policies to combat terrorism quite visible; Islamabad, Kabul and Washington increasingly seem to engage in a coordinated bid to put the genie of violent jihad in the bottle once and for all.

Ever since the Pakistani army, paramilitary and air force launched a resolute counter-insurgency operation in Swat in April 2009, the tides seem to have effectively turned against Taliban and their terrorist local and foreign allies. In recent weeks, the counter-insurgency campaign has entered its most crucial phase, as a second front against the terrorists led by the country’s “Public Enemy No. 1” and leader of Tehrik-e-Taliban Afghanistan, Baitullah Mehsud, was opened in South Waziristan. This is where a surgical US drone strike on a terrorist compound in Chinakai area on July 7 killed reportedly killed some 16 foreign and local militants. Hours after the US strike, Pakistani aircraft were pounding Taliban positions in a nearby area in South Waziristan. The latest drone attack came four days after another suspected US drone targeted the hideout of Noor Wali, a commander allied to Mehsud elsewhere in South Waziristan, and killed at least seven militants.

Coordinated Strategy

On July 7, Pakistani commanders also claimed the death of four militants in Operation Rah-e-Rast, including a brother of Ibn-e-Amin, one of the most-wanted Taliban commanders in the Swat valley. Nearly 2,000 security personnel and unarmed civilians have died at the hands of Taliban terrorists since the July 2007 Red Mosque operation in Islamabad. Pakistani security forces seem to have settled this score by claiming to kill an equal number of Taliban insurgents since the start of Operation Rah-e-Rast in late April. An additional number of 450 local and foreign terrorists have been killed in drone attacks since August last year, the largest death toll of 80 insurgents was claimed by a drone attack last month in South Waziristan.

Across the border in Afghanistan, some 4,000 US Marines joined hands this month with NATO troops to dislodge Taliban from Helmand province. So, by all accounts, it is now absolutely clear that the United States, the NATO, the Afghan government and its Pakistani counterpart are engaged in a well-planned and coordinated campaign to put an end to the wave of terrorism orchestrated for years by al-Qaeda and its Taliban and other terrorist allies in the region. Pakistani government may continue to protest US drone attacks, considering then a violation of its sovereignty, but there seems to be a general understanding now that as long as the terrorist infrastructure of Baitullah Mehsud and his foreign and local allies is intact in South Waziristan and elsewhere in the tribal regions, an all encompassing, cross-national counter-insurgent campaign will not only be unavoidable but also strategically essential.

Noticeable Shifts

By crossing all limits and undertaking wanton terrorist campaign, the Taliban have, in fact, themselves facilitated the task of the country’s security establishment and the civilian government. Recent months have seen a sea change in public opinion, which has heavily shifted against Taliban. In TV debates and news report, such shift is overtly visible now. Perhaps that is why the country’s civilian leadership has come out forcefully in its condemnation of Taliban terrorism and commitment to exterminate it once and for all.

This is clear from the remarks of President Asif Ali Zardari in an interview with the Daily Telegraph, in which he said that military operations “are all across the board against any insurgent whether in Karachi, Lahore or whether he is in any part of Pakistan.” “My problem is terror. I have focused myself on terror. The PPP has focused itself against the extremist mindset. Terror is a regional problem, it cuts across borders…I would love to be remembered for creating a Pakistan where militancy, I know it can’t totally be diminished, is defeated,” the President said.

Unlike its predecessor, the Musharraf regime, the government led by President Zardari and Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani seems to be fully committed to liberate Pakistan from the scourge of terrorism—for obvious reason. Baitullah Mehsud is officially accused of murdering the late Pakistan Peoples Party chairperson and former prime minister Benazir Bhutto in December 2007. Perhaps due to factors such as public sympathy for Taliban, the present government was reluctant to own a resolute army operation against Taliban and other terrorist-insurgents in the Frontier and tribal regions for almost a year after coming to power in March last year. It kept on expecting the army to take the initiative for the purpose and own it too.

However, earlier this year, the moment it noticed significant societal shift against Taliban, the PPP-led regime and its partner in the Frontier, the ANP government publicly owned the mission and directed the army to go ahead. The killing of Maulana Naeemi in a suicide attack sponsored by Baitullah Mehsud offended the center-right main opposition party and its leader, the PML-N of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif—as soon after the tragic event, the PML-N dominated Punjab provincial Assembly unanimously condemned the murder of Maulana Naeemi and announced its full-fledged support to the army operation in Swat. The opposition to this operation is now confined to an insignificant minority of political Islamists, such as the leaders of Jamaaat-e-Islami and Tehrik-e-Insaf who are virtually devoid of any vote bank. These are the only people who are vocal against the drone attacks. Nothing else in the country remains supportive of the deadly national or regional agenda of al-Qaeda, Taliban and other terrorist groups. It’s not just on the home front that these terrorist organizations have lost whatever support system they had before; the tides against them have turned hugely in terms of the external cooperation Pakistan is receiving now. British Foreign Secretary David Miliband reiterated visited Pakistan this week to reiterate British diplomatic support for the country’s offensive against Taliban and his country’s economic help for nearly two million international displaced persons generated by the ongoing conflict in the country’s Frontier and tribal regions. This visit “allows me to underline the UK's support for Pakistan's current efforts to defeat the extremists and to restore peace and security to areas where extremists operate," Mr Miliband said.

American Outlook

The United States also seems to acknowledge and appreciate recent changes in Pakistani public perceptions and official policies regarding the terrorist threat from Taliban, and the ways and means to counter it. Gone are the days when the leadership of Pakistan would say one thing on the issue, its American counterpart another. The counter-terrorism standpoints and policies of the two countries have converged significantly ever since the army operation in Swat began late April—as there is no confusion about who the common enemy is, how grave a common threat it poses and what jointly needs to be done to combat it. In the days to come, there will surely be greater convergence in mutual outlook and policy on terrorism and counter-terrorism, and whatever differences of perception exist now may also overtime disappear.

Some of these issues were discussed by Barnett R Rubin, Special Advisor to Richard Holbrooke, US President Barack Obama’s Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, on July 3, when he spoke to a select group of scholars at the Islamabad-based Centre for Research and Security Studies (CRSS). Until he assumed the official position, Prof Rubin directed the Center for International Cooperation at New York University. The author of several books on Afghanistan, including The Fragmentation of Afghanistan and The Search for Peace in Afghanistan, Prof. Rubin began his presentation by dispelling concerns in Pakistan about the Af-Pak policy of Obama Administration and said that it was in no way aimed to treat the two countries as same.

“The core idea is have a clearer and consistent policy, as many issues of concern to the United States in the region are linked and cannot be dealt with separately, such as the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan and Pakistan and its support bases in the area,” he said. Secondly, he argued, “the United States wants to promote better ties between Afghanistan and Pakistan through such a policy. Our role is to help the two countries address long-standing issues, and one way of addressing these is through a series of trilateral meetings among Pak, Afghan and US leaders and officials.”

The United States, he said, is also helping the two countries to have closer cooperation at the intelligence level. For the purpose, an “Intelligence Fusion Cell” consisting of intelligence officials of the two countries is being created. This will ally their mutual concerns about cross-border interference in respective internal insurgencies. Prof Rubin disclosed that the United States recognizes the Durand Line as an international border. However, its recognition by Afghanistan hinges on the reforms in tribal areas by the government of Pakistan.

As part of its new approach to defeat al-Qaeda and its allies, Prof Rubin said the United States is “enlisting the support of regional actors such as India, Russia, China, Saudi Arabia and even Iran, so that the battle against al-Qaeda and their Taliban and other affiliates could be won. “I recently accompanied Mr. Holbrooke to Saudi Arabia. We know that American and Saudi positions on Afghanistan have not always been the same, but now we have a common interest in the security and stability of Afghanistan.” He said the Chinese and the Russians are more concerned than even the United States about the threat from extremism and terrorism in the region.

As for Pakistan, Prof Rubin was of the opinion that the threat from Taliban has worsened for the country in recent years. And as Pakistan intensifies its battle against them, the United States has also come to acknowledge the gravity of the economic problems facing the country at this critical juncture. That is why it is trying to help Islamabad through a number of ways, including direct assistance or aid from the Friends of Pakistan.

He then made a broader academic point by underling the need to transform the national security state structure of Pakistan, which, in his opinion, is a relic of the Cold War era and is driven by perceived security threat from India or the region. He added that the US nuclear deal with India and the US presence in Afghanistan may have added to Pakistan’s concerns about its asymmetrical position in the region. Prof Rubin’s argument is that the Pakistani security establishment has followed a “risky security strategy in the past to overcome this asymmetry based on three means, conventional army, nuclear deterrence and irregular warfare—even though he did not acknowledge that the last one has eventually backfired for it.

He did, however, say that a move away from the traditional structure of the national security state is not east “when you feel insecure”. But continuing with it has long-term problems. Prof Rubin did appreciate the ongoing security operation against Taliban-led insurgency in Swat and South Waziristan as well as the recent public opinion shift against Taliban. But it was clear from his remarks that the United States wishes Pakistan’s security establishment to effectively end its reliance on irregular warfare as a means to address its perceived insecurity dilemma in the region. What was unclear was what the United States was willing to do to help Pakistan for the purpose. For instance, whether, in due course of time, Mr Holbrooke will be willing to mediate the Kashmir dispute, which fuels extremism and sustains extremist groups waging irregular warfare.

In the interactive discussion that followed Prof Rubin’s presentation, I pointed out a growing concern in Pakistan about the possibility of US reconciling with the Taliban in Afghanistan, with the army in Pakistan bogged down in fighting local Taliban. The reason I raised this issue was that the Obama Administration’s Af-Pak policy is, in my opinion, to a large extent based upon the article titled “From Grate Game to Great Bargain” that Prof Rubin and Ahmed Rashid co-authored in a late 2008 issue of Foreign Affairs, in which al-Qaeda was identified as the main enemy and the option of dialogue with Taliban willing to disassociate with al-Qaeda was underscored.

While denying that the Af-Pak policy was based on what he and Ahmed had written last year in the Foreign Affairs, Prof Rubin said that the US policy is still evolving, and that the option of dialogue with Taliban should be seen as part of this evolutionary process. Therefore, Washington at this stage cannot have a position on it. However, he said the new US administration does not consider the Taliban or other Afghan insurgents as “enemies” if they are willing to surrender arms and ready to participate in the political process. It is al-Qaeda, which is the principal enemy.

Final Thoughts

Dialogue with insurgents may not be an option on the table now, but it will surely emerge in the aftermath of the ongoing security operations on both sides of the Durand Line. For now, the preference of Pakistan and the United States is to undertake the final showdown against Taliban and their al-Qaeda terrorist backers. It is in the aftermath of these operations that the situation will be ripe for political reconciliation and conflict resolution minus the use of military instrument. For the purpose, there are ample lessons to learn from recent counter-insurgency successes in Iraq.

Now that the enemy is clearly defined, and an effective counter-insurgency campaign is under way in both Pakistan’s Taliban-infested tribal north-western areas and Afghanistan’s southern and eastern strife-torn regions, the state parties and international forces engaged in combating terrorism need to enhance their multi-layered cooperation to win the final battle against Taliban.

Access column at weeklypulse.org