Who will Prevail in the Battle for Pakistan?
October 16, 2008
Frustrated in the face of intense US military campaigns currently underway in tribal regions bordering Afghanistan, Pakistani Taliban have brought their battle to cities and towns across Pakistan undertaking scores of targeted bombings in recent months. The army’s success in tribal mountainous regions has, at least for now, been counter-balanced by Taliban’s relative gain in the country’s settled areas.

What happens next in this battle for Pakistan is a question that has regained value because public hopes about the revival of democracy earlier this year acting as an antidote to Taliban.

As soon as he had taken over , Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani offered a peace deal to Taliban if they gave up arms. This was followed by a peace deal actually being concluded between the government of the North-West Frontier province and Taliban of Swat Valley. The deal collapsed because the Pakistani government, probably under US pressure, refused to adopt it. Instead, the Pakistani government decided to intensify its security operations against Taliban in Waziristan and Swat regions.

Hell broke loose afterwards across Pakistan. Since March, one suicide attack after another has hit major cities and towns, the most devastating of all being the bombing of the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad on September 20. Waziristan violence trickled down to previously peaceful tribal agencies such as Khyber and Bajaur, where, like in Swat, Taliban have been burning schools, blocking bridges, and destroying power generation units.

Also, their suicide bombers have been looking for high profile public targets to cause maximum damage of life and property. The ripple effect of is already significant; Taliban have succeeded in terrorizing people, derailing the government business, and scaring away local and foreign investors.

Pakistan’s "Own War"

Seven years ago, "the War on Terror" that the United States launched against the Taliban regime might not have been Pakistan’s war. In January 2004, when Pakistan deployed some 80,000 troops in Waziristan region, it was still a security operation meant to prevent the alleged cross-border Taliban infiltration into Afghanistan. And it remained so until the summer of 2007.

It was Musharraf regime’s security operation on the Red Mosque in July last year that effectively led to the wave of suicide-bombing-laden attacks by Taliban–first against security forces and then against civilian targets.

Former premier Benazir Bhutto also became a victim of violence, even though Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud refuted the government’s claim about his involvement in the assassination. But Mehsud did emerge as an unrivalled local Taliban leader, threatening to fight against security forces with thousands of militants and hundreds of suicide bombers at his disposal. This was an open declaration of war. Therefore, after assuming power, Pakistan People’s Party-led government began treating this war as “Pakistan’s own.”

It was on this basis that the present civilian leadership has justified its decision to intensify military operation against Taliban.

However, two factors may still complicate the ability of the government to nationally own the fight against Taliban and neutralize public perception about Pakistan fighting America’s war.

First, like his predecessor, President Asif Ali Zardari has closely identified himself with the US leadership in the "War on Terror". Second, recent weeks have seen an unusual hype in cross-border US attacks in Pakistani tribal areas, which have stirred anti-US nationalist sentiments in Pakistan.

Taliban Tactics

The Marriott bombing in Islamabad was a continuation of the violent wave unleashed by Taliban in Waziristan and Swat last year. In the past couple of months, Taliban tactics have gone a step higher from targeting commoners on the streets to target bombing, for instance, that of Marriott.

The change in Taliban tactics may be an outcome of their successive reversals in the face of an effective military campaign in Swat, Waziristan and other tribal areas. Since Taliban are unable to fight the security forces, including regular troops and paramilitary units–currently numbering over 130,000, they have chosen to attack high-profile public and government targets, including Prime Minister Gilani and ANP leader Asfandyar Wali.

Such a militant backlash by Taliban in Pakistani cities and towns indicates an increasing frustration amid their ranks. As the 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 attacks in cities and towns.

Such reckless violence, which makes 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 violence means in the name of jihad.

Security Operation

One tribal area where intense security campaign has achieved credible success is Bajaur, where Pakistani Army has claimed sufficient ground and the Taliban are on the run from their strongholds. For the first time in the last three years, the Army achieved its goals, and the government rejected the Taliban peace deal on August 25.

There was a familiar pattern in the past: security forces would launch a forceful operation against Taliban to force them to call for a dialogue. The government would also then try to appease the group. This would give Taliban enough time to re-energize and then renew their campaign.

Mehsud had warned the Frontier government leadership to leave Peshawar within five days or face the Taliban assault. Both the Federal government and Frontier leadership, however, ignored his warning. At the same time, the military operation against Taliban was stepped up. And for the first time, Pakistan Air Force became fully operational and successful in pounding the militants’ hideouts.

This time again, as the security operation intensified, Mehsud called for dialogue. According to reports, Mehsud himself is extremely sick and does not seem to wield the same power over Taliban. He is accused of sponsoring the recent killing of Haji Namdar in the tribal Khyber region, and some Taliban factions oppose Mehsud’s stance 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.

New, Creative Strategy

Another indicator of the potentially waning power of Taliban is the rise of local tribesmen against Taliban. Interestingly, this strategy of empowering tribal Pashtun people by the Army has been working well so far. Five local Lashkars (army of the tribesmen) have been formed at various places which were previously under Taliban’s control. These Lashkars have warned the supporters of Taliban and have burnt down the houses of those who did not adhere to their warnings.

However, it is the ongoing battle for Bajaur that will decide whether this new, creative strategy of pitting tribal militias against Taliban will eventually succeed or not.

Besides, the continuing intensification of the Army-led security operation in tribal areas against the backdrop of the civilian government’s attempt to take the United States in confidence over the issue of cross-border Taliban infiltration into Afghanistan will be crucial in tackling the threat of 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. However, given its democratic nature, it must find a long-term solution to this volatile situation.

There is almost a consensus on the idea that military operations alone cannot be a solution, and that they merely pave the way for a permanent resolution . The government and the army need to move in tandem, using both force and socio-economic empowerment strategies.

It took over three decades for the jihad mentality to control Pakistan’s psyche; however, Taliban’s reckless tactics is creating a different mindset, which opposes the use of violent means no matter how genuine a political cause may be. It is this transformation in public opinion that a civilian democratic leadership has to capitalize on in the days ahead, so as to reverse the Taliban phenomenon once and for all.

Access column at islamonline