COMMENTARY
 
Course of Action after the Terrorist Attack on GHQ
Weekly Pulse
October 16-22, 2009
Hundreds of people gathered in the evening of October 13 at Gate No 1 of the Army General Headquarters in Rawalpindi to pay homage to the 11 soldiers who died fighting terrorists and rescuing hostages. Through this candlelit vigil, the young and the old alike, children and women included, sent a message loud and clear to terrorists: United we stand behind our brave soldiers, and we will never let you succeed in establishing your regressive writ in our beloved homeland.

The message the terrorists had attempted to convey by attacking the GHQ and taking 42 hostages inside its premises three days ago was also crystal clear: that nothing in Pakistan is immune from our terrorist campaign, not even the nerve centre of the country’s military prowess—which is perceived to be invincible in the national psyche. The message behind scores of terrorist events in Lahore, Peshawar and Kohat since the GHQ attack, targeting mostly security personnel, was also the same.

Thank God, the rather unusual terrorist on the GHQ, despite its prediction in a recent intelligence report, was successfully thwarted by the security forces within a day of its initiation on October 10th morning. All those who participated in the operation, especially the army commandoes who in its culminating stage so skillfully rescued 39 hostages from terrorists, minimizing the loss of lives to only three, and were able to nab their ring leader alive, deserve national praise. The October 13th vigil outside the GHQ was its symbolic expression. Likewise, the security personnel who successfully combated the terrorist attacks in Lahore deserve national praise.

Even before the terrorists struck GHQ, and even while the terrorist backlash was becoming more visible with a spate of terrorist attacks in the past few weeks on carefully chosen three separate targets-- innocent civilians, security personnel and employs of international organizations—the country’s civilian leadership and the security establishment had reached a consensus: that South Waziristan had become the principal source of TTP-led terrorism across Pakistan, and, therefore, undertaking a full-throttled military offensive there had become an absolute necessity to preserve national security.

Declaration of War

The terrorist attack on the GHQ amounts to a declaration of war. In the perception of the security establishment, an attack on its central headquarters is the last limit that an enemy can cross. The Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan led by Hakimullah Mehsud, or, more specifically, its Punjabi Taliban affiliates who actually conducted the GHQ attack, did exactly this. Naturally, therefore, the most likely response from the army should be the instant launching of a ground assault in South Waziristan. In fact, since the end of the hostage drama at the GHQ, air strikes on Taliban targets in South Waziristan, where the latest terrorist attack was planned by TTP, have intensified. The moment the army finalizes the last leg of its counter-insurgency strategy for the region, the ground operation will begin.

Counter-insurgency, especially the one aimed to eliminate terrorist-insurgents, is always a difficult task. But Pakistan army already has a great success in its hands in the shape of the security operation in Swat. Now that TTP has crossed the last limit of its terrorist campaign—that of attacking the GHQ—there is danger of over-reaction on the army’s part, especially the use of massive firepower in the imminent security operation in South Waziristan. In such eventualities, the counter-insurgency forces can make a fatal mistake of making no distinction between terrorists and civilians, both of whom happen to be in the same locality.

The army’s anger after the GHQ attack is justified, but its response to it has to take into account all the counter-insurgency complexities of a rugged, mountainous region that is far more difficult than Swat to reclaim from thousands of hardcore Taliban and Uzbek terrorist insurgents. For years, they have made South Waziristan as a ‘base’ for their terrorist operations across Pakistan. These terrorists have a long experience of guerrilla warfare, and are laced with latest weaponry and committed to al-Qaeda’s extremist ideology and terrorist agenda.

TTP has already claimed responsibility for the attack on GHQ, and for all other recent terrorist attacks on innocent civilians, security personnel and UN officials. The mastermind of the GHQ attack, Muhammad Aqeel alias Dr Usman, was also said to be behind the attack on Sri Lankan cricket team and the Manawan Police Academy in Lahore in March. TTP as an enemy is clearly defined now. What is also clearly defined is the fact that the ranks of Taliban are also filled with terrorists from South Punjab, and these are people who once belonged to organizations such as Lashkar-e-Tayyiba and Jaish-e-Muhammad involved in the militant uprising in Kashmir during the 1990s.

Counter-Terrorism Options

The justification for a final battle between the state of Pakistan and its enemies, the TTP and its local and foreign terrorist affiliates, is absolutely clear. In fact, we have already been at war with these terrorists for a number of years. The only difference at present is that before we could follow upon our success in Swat against these terrorists and engage them in the final battle in South Waziristan and beyond, they have taken on us in the shape of scores of spectacular attacks in the last few weeks. They have stolen the initiative from our security forces. They have pre-empted the South Waziristan operation. Now they attack, and we only react.

Given that, we cannot afford to wait any longer to once and for all defeat Pakistan’s terrorist enemies. There is an urgent need to reverse this equation by steeling the initiative from them. However, while starting our counter-terrorism response firmly, we must remember that the enemies we are up against are full of extremist suicidal resolve, and that they plan their terrorist operations rationally. We should be prepared for far worse terrorist backlash during the course of our military operation against them, as each thrashing they get in South Waziristan will be responded by them with another devastating attack in our cities and towns.

Tightening of Security

Obviously, the best deterrence against a terrorist backlash is heightened security arrangements. We made such arrangements throughout the Swat operation and, therefore, were able to save at least our major cities from Taliban terrorism for many months. It is only recently that TTP suicide bombers have been able to cheat our security arrangements.

So, the first requirement of the counter-insurgency course of action we adopt in the aftermath of the GHQ attack or in response to the current intensification in the TTP-led terrorist backlash is to further tighten security in major cities and make the optimal use of our intelligence gathering activity so that suicide bombers are preempted well before they strike a target. If we were able to manage the terrorist backlash effectively, TTP and its Punjabi or foreign affiliates would surely lose the most powerful tool of at their disposal: that of terrorizing people.

South Waziristan Operation

The second pre-requisite for the course of action against terrorism pertains to the actual theatre of war: South Waziristan. We have to carefully assess the complex ground realities and possible security risks before launching the ground operation. As the codename of the operation, Rah-e-Nijat, literally implies, its main objective is to physically exterminate the enemy. This means we plan to liberate the region completely from Taliban and Uzbek terrorist-insurgents. Two divisions of troops currently encircling the region may not be enough if the battle there prolongs. In that case, additional troops may be needed.

Thus, the military strategy we contemplate at the start must include the option for a troops’ surge. Isolating terrorist-insurgents from the civilian population in the area will be a hell of task. However, since the army has already achieved remarkable success in this respect during the Swat operation, its commanders during the South Waziristan operation should be able to minimize civilian losses. Like Swat, they should know that Taliban and Uzbek terrorists have for years made the majority of tribal population in the area a hostage to their terrorist campaign. Given that, capitalizing on the potential support of this suffering population must be part and parcel of our counter-insurgency strategy during the South Waziristan operation.

Tacking TTP Affiliates

A third pre-requisite for our course of action against domestic terrorism is related to TTP affiliates in tribal areas and the Frontier province, particularly North Waziristan, Bajaur and Khyber agencies of FATA, as well as in south Punjab. Knowing that the army is still managing the leftover of Taliban insurgents in Swat and fully engaged in South Waziristan—and, therefore, is already over-stretched in its counter-insurgency campaign—these affiliates can raise the stakes for it by attacking military targets and security personnel outside the theatre of war. The army, the police, the FIA and the intelligence agencies—all of them would have to be more vigilant to prevent the affiliates of TTP in the rest of FATA, and parts of the Frontier and Punjab provinces from opening a third front against the army, while it finishes the job in Swat and South Waziristan.

To isolate TTP, the mother of all terrorists, in its South Waziristan stronghold, we would have to creatively exploit the serious rift that has been created in Taliban ranks after Baitullah Mehsud’s death in August. Maulvi Faqir Muhammad from Bajaur, who was appointed the deputy leader of TTP when it was founded in December 2007, has distanced himself from Hakimullah Mehsud and created his own ‘Ithad Taliban.’ Maulvi Nazir and Gul Bahadur from North Waziristan are other two Taliban leaders, who are openly against TTP terrorism in Pakistan.

Besides exploiting internal divisions among Taliban, we must be absolutely clear about one thing: while cultivating Taliban leaders and seeking their neutrality during the course of Operation Rah-e-Nijat in South Waziristan and security campaigns against TTP affiliates in other parts of FATA and Frontier province, we must seek a guarantee from them that they will forsake any connection that they have had in the past with the Taliban-led insurgency in Afghanistan against US, NATO and Afghan forces. Likewise, in the case of south Punjab, we would have to adopt a policy of zero tolerance on all organizations committed to violent jihad, be it in the name of Kashmir or Afghanistan.

Last but not the least, we must surely not under-estimate our enemy, but we should also not over-estimate it. It may very well be the case that Hakimullah, being younger and more hot-blooded, is exhausting his terrorist assets, especially the force of suicide bombers at his disposal, in the shape of almost daily suicide attacks in major cities and towns. The dangers associated with the ground campaign in South Waziristan may, therefore, not be as grave as we are envisioning right now. Kerry-Lugar Act

Once we are categorical in our security response to home-grown terrorism, there is no reason why the international community should not be cooperative with us the way it should be. Our foreign minister has already briefed the Obama Administration about the reservations expressed by the army about some conditionalties of the Kerry-Lugar Bill, which has received bitter criticism from politicians and opinion leaders in the country. Some of these conditionalties should naturally become immaterial once we begin an effective counter-terrorism campaign in the days ahead.

The domestic concerns about the remaining ones pertaining to sensitive issues such nuclear program and military’s institutional matters may subside after the categorical Congressional explanation that they do not in any way aim to jeopardize Pakistani sovereignty. It is a fact that President Obama has signed the Bill only after the Congress issued its explanatory statement on it. A negotiated compromise over the Kerry-Lugar Bill was essential, if not for anything else but to ensure that the country’s historically troubled civil-military relationship remains smooth, resulting in relative political stability, which, in turn, is the prime necessity for a successful counter-terrorism campaign. Pakistan’s success against terrorism is not possible without international assistance, both military and economic. The delivery of $7.5 billion US civilian assistance to Pakistan in the next five years is important. For if we failed to rebuild the areas liberated from Taliban and restore normal life there, then the ensuing vacuum would only contribute to terrorist recruitment and worsening of the terrorist quagmire in Pakistan and its ripple effect in the region. One hopes the government will be able to assure the critiques of the Bill, which has now become an Act, that Pakistan’s relationship with the United States is really becoming strategic now, rather than tactical as has been the case since 9/11, and that the Kerry-Lugar Act is a reflection of this transformation in ties between the two countries engaged in a common fight against terrorism.

Three International Guarantees

During the course of Operation Rah-e-Nijat, Pakistan should seek three additional international guarantees, especially through the regular interaction that our civilian and army leaders have with their American counterparts.

First, that US drone attacks in South Waziristan should not complicate the counter-insurgency task of our security forces once they are engaged in exterminating hardcore Taliban and Uzbek terrorists there. The US drone strikes have been extremely useful in decapitating TTP leadership in South Waziristan in recent months, including the elimination of our Public Enemy No 1, Baitullah Mehsud. However, if the use of drones generates hostile feelings among the local population, then it should constitute a great disadvantage for the army’s counter-insurgency ground campaign in the region.

Second, in the perception of the Pakistani security establishment, the Indian factor in Afghanistan is quite crucial. Of course, the Taliban infiltration across the Durand Line has never been a one-way process. Once we start to thrash Taliban in South Waziristan, the fear of Taliban and Uzbek forces being replenished from across the border in Afghanistan, where India, the arch rival of Pakistan, has established a foothold in the post-Taliban era will naturally arise amongst the country’s security establishment. The simple rationale for this is that out of its enmity, particularly to avenge Pakistan’s perceived attempt to bleed India in Kashmir in the ‘90s, New Delhi with its overtly anti-Pakistan allies in Kabul might like the Pakistan army to get bogged down in its war with the Taliban.

The last international guarantee that we need to seek, especially through America as our partner in this war, is that once our security forces are engaged in beating the al-Qaeda-inspired Taliban and their local and foreign affiliates in South Waziristan and elsewhere, and if during that time another Mumbai-like terrorist attack occurs in India, the Indian leadership will not raise the security stakes for our army on the eastern borders. Since triggering tension and causing conflict between India and Pakistan is one of the important rational objectives of al-Qaeda, Taliban and other terrorists operating in Pakistan and the region, India’s knee-jerk and irresponsible reaction against Pakistan after each terrorist act in its territory indirectly serves the terrorist cause. Once we are engaged fully against terrorists on the Western frontier, another engagement on the eastern border will be militarily devastating for us.

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