COMMENTARY
 
Taliban on the Warpath
Weekly Pulse
October 23-29, 2009
As Pakistan Army's military offensive underway in South Waziristan makes headway, Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan has intensified its terrorist campaign across the country. October 20th suicide bombings at International Islamic University were one of the latest expressions of Taliban terrorist backlash in Pakistan, and they won’t be the last. From the Army’s General Headquarters in Rawalpindi and the Police Training Centres in Lahore to a public market in Peshawar and now to a centre of higher learning in Islamabad—the terrorists are certainly on the warpath, missing no target, security or civilian, and sparing no one, the armed and the unarmed. Almost daily now, Taliban are striking their well-chosen targets.

Being at war for years, the people of Iraq and Afghanistan are familiar with such terrorist patterns. Citizens of a fully functional state, which had fought the last all-out war with India some 40 years ago, Pakistanis are not. Their country is increasingly becoming a theatre of war: a battle in which the enemy employs terrorist tools such as suicide bombings and, therefore, is laced with an element of surprise that traditional armies always lacked. Terrorism is a successful weapon in societies at relative peace. Since Pakistan is no Afghanistan, Iraq or Somalia, the psychological effect of terrorism will always be greater here than countries raved by decades of wars.

It is no surprise, therefore, that as the terrorist backlash from the ongoing military offensive in South Waziristan intensifies, level of fear and intimidation among common Pakistanis is simultaneously surmounting. This is exactly what terrorists want. Terrorism is a much more horrific phenomenon than war and guerilla war, because it not only kills but also makes people scared. The tragedy of terrorism is not confined to the act of suicide bombing alone; rather, it goes beyond this and affects people wherever they are—inside their homes, on the road, in schools, or at workplaces.

Terrorist Aims

Terrorists aim to disrupt the normal business of life. They attempt to scuttle the democratic process. They try to ruin the economy of a nation. Their ambition is to spoil foreign relations of a country. They create conflicts, and conflagrate prevailing conflicts. The multiplier effect of terrorism, in the shape of terror, is manifested in many ways.

The sudden closure of schools, colleges and universities across Pakistan in the past two weeks is one such internal manifestation. Other such manifestations are visible in the country’s political and economic domains: a democratic government is spending all of its energies on managing security rather than consolidating the gains of democracy. The economy, which had started to recover in recent months, is once again experiencing a serious downturn. On the foreign policy front, while the country had not yet resolved its conflict with India over the Mumbai attacks, the terrorists have succeeded in creating another conflict between Islamabad and Tehran after Jandola’s suicide attack on Revolutionary Guards in Iran's Sistan province across Pakistan's Balochistan.

For the civil-military leadership in Pakistan, the challenges from al-Qaeda-inspired TTP-led terrorists have indeed become graver in recent weeks. Their gravity is certainly most visible in the fear factor that haunts every peace-loving Pakistani now. Never before, therefore, has the need for doing something credible, something tangible against terrorism been felt by the state and society at large as much as at present.

Nerve Centre

At the national security conference presided over by Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani last week, an occasion that brought together civilian and military leaders on the same platform, an unusual national consensus emerged on a single issue: the need to eradicate terrorism from the country. Politicians in government and opposition, liberals and conservatives, shared the perspective of Army Chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani that South Waziristan had become the main source of TTP terrorism across Pakistan, and, therefore, the country’s success in the war on terrorism was not possible without eradicating TTP and its foreign terrorist allies in that tribal region.

Thus, if Taliban and their terrorist allies are on the warpath against Pakistan, the country’s army and security agencies are also on a warpath against them. By attacking the GHQ and claiming responsibility for it, the TTP literally declared this war, and there is no reason why it should not pay any price for this and dozens upon dozens of other horrific terrorist incidents in the country. Operation Rah-e-Nijat is meant to exterminate thousands of local and foreign terrorists holed up in South Waziristan, where the troops are currently advancing from three different directions: the east, the south, and the north.

The counter-insurgency operation in the area is not just confined to using military force against TTP and foreign terrorists in South Waziristan. The army is denying TTP leaders the opportunity to receive strategic support from other tribal areas. General Kayani has personally corresponded with the tribal people of South Waziristan who have become a hostage to local and foreign terrorists. Reportedly, two tribes responded positively to this appeal and decided to support the army operation. There are reports about Hafiz Gul Bahadur in North Waziristan and Maulvi Nazir in South Waziristan agreeing to extend their support to the army operation. Maulvi Faqir, the Taliban leader in Bajaur, likewise does not respect the current leadership of TTP under Hakimullah Mehsud.

While cultivating the support of leaders and thousands of their followers from within the Taliban movement is crucially important, such strategy aimed at optimal exploitation of intra-Taliban divide must be pursued while keeping in mind the potential danger that the extremist allies we pragmatically cultivate today should not become a Frankenstein Monster for us in future—just as the extremists-terrorists on the warpath against us now eventually did.

Ripple Effect

South Waziristan operation is a must, but our war against terrorists is unlikely to end there. Its ripple effect will be visible in terrorist insurgencies in other areas of the tribal belt, and parts of Frontier and Punjab provinces. Wherever and whenever the terrorist danger surfaces or resurfaces, it has to be crushed right way through the total exercise of state military force—since preservation of territorial integrity and sustenance of national sovereignty are issues over which there can be no compromise.

Each headway we make against terrorists will surely be followed by even worse wave of terrorist backlash. The normal pace of life will continue to be disrupted in the shape of school closures, police check posts here and there. People will naturally be more scared in moving out of their homes and going to marketplaces. But then there is no escape from such bitter realities of life amid a worsening terrorism-ridden security quagmire. But Pakistanis have come out of several such tumultuous times in the past, and they will also surely fail the terrorists of today as well. It’s a war that will be fought by every Pakistani on every front.

The most important national requirement in such eventualities is to keep supporting the government and the army in their great effort to defeat terrorism. Public opinion in the country is currently heavily tilted against Taliban. Each terror act that TTP undertakes adds further to thus public opinion shift. Taliban must know that when they struck International Islamic University, they turned many hundreds in this citadel of Islamic learning against them in a single day. No terrorist movement, however powerful it is, can withstand simultaneous pressure from an advancing army and a hostile population.

Signs of Success

Even otherwise, a pragmatic explanation of the current terrorist wave may be that under a relatively young and hot-blooded Hakimullah Mehsud, TTP may be fast exhausting its principal terrorist asset: the suicide bombers. How long the organization is able to sustain suicide bombings is something that only time will tell us. But we must also not rule out a possibility that the ongoing Taliban-led terrorist backlash may be an expression of frustration and desperation on their part. The moment our army eliminates TTP and its foreign terrorist affiliates in South Waziristan, including a suiced bombers producing factory run by Qari Hussain, Taliban-led terrorist backlash across the country may recede.

Given that, we as a nation, may have to bear the ultimate pressure the terrorists are exercising upon us at present. We may take a sigh of relief the moment their nerve centre, South Waziristan, comes effectively under the control of our army. Once we win this main battle, then the leftover of terrorism can be won with more creative counter-insurgency security measures—something that a security establishment after achieving two grand successes in Swat and South Waziristan can easily secure in due course of time.

Of course, each military success should be immediately followed by a host of political democratic reforms and economic developmental initiatives. Otherwise, the remnants of terrorists-insurgents will succeed in filling the vacuum generated by the military offensive through even greater terrorist recruitments. For the purpose, sustained support from the international community, especially the multi-billion assistance to the country from the United States and the Friends of Democratic Pakistan, will be an absolute necessity in the coming months.

Last but not the least, while our security operations are underway, our diplomatic efforts should also pick up momentum. Another conflict over terrorism with Iran is the last thing we can afford at present, especially given that fact that our peace process with India already remains stuck due to the two country’s difference of approach in bringing the culprits of Mumbai terrorist attacks to task. As we go after homegrown terrorists, with external avenues of support, our diplomacy should strive to create a conducive regional environment for our counter-insurgency, counter-terrorism campaign in South Waziristan and beyond in the coming weeks and months.

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