August Issue 2008
The Gathering Storm
The top brass of General Headquarters in Rawalpindi, the heart of the Pakistan Army, is getting used to a different daily routine. Instead of mulling over the limited variations of precise battle plans against India, they now have to spend precious time on an expanding, deadlier, but still amorphous, threat of internal terrorism. On their operational maps, the dots no longer mark just the potential points of enemy attack on the border. The red circles now include cities and towns facing strategic challenges at the hands of the local Taliban. From Khyber to Karachi, the war within Pakistan is coming to a boil, in tandem with trouble on the international frontiers with Afghanistan and the Line of Control with India.
The situation is most deleterious in Pakistan’s softer underbelly. The entire tribal belt, comprising seven agencies, is aflame with warriors using the flag of Islam to wage war on the failing writ of the state of Pakistan. Organised under the self-serving banner of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), headed by the elusive Baitullah Mehsud from South Waziristan, the fierce brigands either virtually control central parts of these agencies (as in Bajaur and Mohmand in the north) or retain a vast network of fabulously armed vigilante groups, (as in lower Kurrum and Orakzai agencies), who are organised along tribal or even sectarian lines and are capable of taking on the professionally trained soldiers.
But at least for now, the focus of these groups is on the presence of international forces in Afghanistan. In Bajaur Agency, Syed Sher Bahadur, second-in-command of the local TTP, has no doubt who he has to fight.
“There can only be one power in the universe, and that is the power of the word of Allah. George Bush is trying to challenge this word here in Afghanistan and we must fight him,” he declares in the presence of over 50 heavily armed gunmen in the Daman Gai post opposite Afghanistan’s Kunar province. The Taliban took over the post as soon as the security forces vacated it. Officials call abandoning of the post “routine adjustment.” The Taliban think otherwise.
“When I crossed the soldiers coming down from the post, I told them that this was the best thing they could have done because they cannot fight a long war [against the US]. Only we can do it,” boasts Maulvi Syed Muhammad Umar, central spokesman for the TTP.
“We will fight to the very end,” he adds. But no one knows what this “very end” is. The TTP is riven with internal dissensions. In Mohmand Agency, contiguous to Bajaur, local TTP commander Maulvi Umar Khalid is locked in a macabre fight with Jamaat-ud-Dawa, the rival group of the now dead Muslim Khan, popularly known as Shah Sahib, who was executed by Khalid’s supporters, who also captured dozens of the late commander’s group members.
This prompted a rare attempt at enforcing discipline on the warring factions by Baitullah Mehsud, who formed a committee to probe the matter and settle the dispute. It is uncertain how the committee’s findings will be implemented. Meanwhile, the present Jamaat-ud-Dawa chief Hafiz Saeed, mentor of the late Shah Sahib, is flying into a fit of rage. While playing the mediator, he is insisting on a hard line against the growing tendency of the TTP to assert itself against all other outfits in the area. Local sources say that Umar Khalid is now a potential target of reprisals.
In Waziristan region, where the Taliban and local tribesmen form a deadly force, the Tehrik is grappling with major issues. Gul Bahadur (North Waziristan) and Mullah Nazir (South Waziristan) are at daggers drawn with Baitullah Mehsud. One measure of the extent of the rivalry of these groups is that local journalists have to get written clearance from the representatives of both the groups to carry out their professional work. Any visitor to the area must inform both groups in order to stay safe.
But even then there are no guarantees of life and limb for those who dare to move around in these zones. Salar Khan, who fought against the Russians from Khost (Afghanistan) across North Waziristan, points out the reason for this uncertainty.
“The old institution of Ustaz (religious and ideological guide and teacher) is not there. Groups with tribal and personal interests have taken up arms without knowing which way they have to go and how to go there. Even I am afraid of moving out of my house because I don’t know who will come and kill me, for whatever reason,” he says.
This is borne out by experience. From Bajaur, the main leader of the Tehrik, Maulvi Umar issued a ‘no objection certificate’ for the Newsline team to travel across the tribal belt. The letter was also stamped by Baitullah Mehsud’s second-in-command. When the team reached the outskirts of North Waziristan, at Baka Khel, in the frontier region of Bannu, the local Taliban refused to allow further travel. They wanted permission signed by their amir, Gul Bahadur. The resulting two-hour long detention was undone only after clearance arrived from the right quarters.
But even then, the Taliban seem to be rallying around the cause to fight the Americans in Afghanistan. American strikes inside the Pakistani territory have proven to be an unlikely bond uniting the disparate groups. While there is very little unity of the ideological command — a hallmark of the Afghan Taliban under Mullah Umar — the point at which these groups bury the hatchet is that they must fight the upcoming war together.
Even the tribesmen who detest the presence of foreigners and do not approve of the Taliban’s tactics of unbridled killings and beheadings are willing to play ball with the self-proclaimed jihadis. Afzal Daur, a 35-year-old truck driver, is itching to attack the newly-reinforced Afghan trenches across the Ghulam Khan Customs post in North Waziristan.
“I am told that the firangis (foreigners) are planning to enter our land. We cannot let it happen. I will die happily and kill as many as I can,” he says with a wry smile on his face.
This kind of singular zeal directed at a foreign enemy, while having serious consequences, does earn Pakistan’s establishment breathing space from the spread of the Taliban menace within the country. Suddenly, the turbaned tide, instead of swamping Pakistan, has begun to change course and is now gathering on the Durand Line.
This goes to the heart of the charge of the US against Pakistan’s new government, that it is only worried about its internal issues and is not interested in taking on the Taliban as long as they do not pose an internal threat.
Military sources say that at almost every important meeting, US officials raise the issue of the Taliban exploiting the soft pedalling of the Pakistan government to organise themselves for bloodier attacks across the Durand Line.
“They want us to go and smash the heads of anyone sporting a beard and chanting slogans against the US,” said a senior military official.
“Our prime commitment is to stabilise Pakistan’s internal situation and countering terrorism globally has to be aligned with this consideration,” he added.
This is the right approach, but the problem is that countering terrorism and taming the Taliban inside Pakistan is fast becoming the same thing. Groups inside Pakistan claim open allegiance to Al-Qaeda or Afghan leaders such as Jalauddin Haqqani, whose son, Siraj Haqqani is a favoured guest in some tribal homes. More to the point, the assumption has not been proven yet that Pakistan can find a solution to the problem of internal militancy independent of global demands. The happenings in Swat, where negotiations were applied to crack the militants’ chokehold of the region, establish that the Pakistani alternative is not even bearing domestic dividends. The militants, organised around Mullah Fazllulah, have gained ground. Having borne the brunt of the military operation from October-December 2007, they have skillfully used the negotiation process to dig themselves in. They have resumed their attacks and have threatened to use their dreaded suicide squads. This has caused the second phase of the military operation to start, whose goals now include “complete elimination of the forces resisting the writ of the state.”
Even generally, there is no evidence to suggest that the Taliban groups are being rolled back. The tentacles of these groups are deeply entrenched in the so-called Frontier Regions, adjoining Peshawar, Kohat, Bannu, Laki Marwat, Tank and D.I. Khan. The third administrative layer comprising Malakand Agency and Kala Daka, too, is swamped by the Taliban.
And it is not as if the strength of this threat is present only in areas where provincial and federal governments have been historically averse to excercising their full jurisdiction. It is hard to find a single district in all of the NWFP where Taliban activities are not growing. One case in point was the clarion call of the Peshawar police chief about the city falling to the Taliban, which triggered the limited operation against Khyber Agency’s warlord, Mangal Bagh. The situation looks different across the Attock Bridge, connecting the NWFP with the Punjab, but in reality it isn’t.
While Islamabad has seen the reach and the audacity of these groups in the shape of suicide attacks on the police and diplomatic missions, other parts of the Punjab, particularly in the south which is a recruitment ground for most Punjabi Taliban, and west Punjab, where sectarian hatred is institutionalised, the defiant religious groups are showing signs of revival. Local residents of Jhang, the centrepiece of sectarian strife, report a marked increase in the activities of sectarian outfits. Graffiti eulogising the cause of the Taliban is emblazoned across the main roads of Karachi, and, tellingly, the counter-messaging of “crush Taliban” are just as numerous.
Balochistan, already an unsafe place for settlers and hobbled by bouts of bloody fighting between law enforcers and members of the Baloch Liberation Army, is witnessing fresh incidents of sectarian killings whose details are zipped across the country through mobile SMSs. (The bulk of these SMSs urge recipients to “please forward” and “rise and protest now”).
Completing the picture of this dispiriting internal scene is a growing body of evidence that external resources are helping to finance these groups. Official briefings on “external factors involved in Pakistan’s internal troubles” leave nothing to the imagination. The hideouts that have been busted in military operations have yielded weapons with markings of virtually every country in the region, as well as packs of international currency, sometimes fresh from the mint. Officials say that India is leading the campaign to undermine Pakistan.
“They are the major financiers and information providers to other countries,” says a high-ranking intelligence official.
Unfortunately, while Pakistan attempts to use this evidence to prove victimisation, its case gets drowned in the thunder of accusations of “not doing enough.” Washington is spearheading this pressure. There isn’t a single US official who has not raised this issue in recent official meetings with Pakistani counterparts. Alarmingly, during his last visit, Richard Boucher, US deputy secretary of state, held a couple of informal meetings where he tried to get a sense of whether the present army chief was “serious in fighting the war against terrorism.”
There is an acute deficit of trust on both sides. So much so that the much used phrase of “partners in the war against terrorism” has an increasingly hollow ring to it. This is why when a Frontier Corps post was attacked by a Predator drone killing Pakistani soldiers in Mohmand Agency last month, there was a complete clash of assessments of what had caused the incident. While the view from the attackers has since changed track from “response to hostile fire” to “incomplete data about Pakistani posts on the border,” an outraged Pakistan high command continues to hold the line that it was deliberately done to send the message that “patience is running out.”
Remarkably, while the threat to national security has fast gathered steam, the policy-making apparatus is mired in paralytic confusion. The Pakistan Peoples Party-led government’s response to the shrinking writ of the state and the ballooning influence of the Taliban has been a typical cop-out. Asif Ali Zardari, who has conveniently hogged all decision-making powers on critical issues, chose to absent himself for almost a month at a time when the border situation was deteriorating and Taliban activities were on the rise. He left behind a near dysfunctional prime minister with an incomplete cabinet, and an adviser on the interior whose time and attention was already divided on managing political controversies and addressing general law and order. Matters are not helped by the fact that there is no institutional support available to the political government that could render sane advice on the complexity of the tribal belt situation.
The high-profile meetings on national security where the army chief, along with the intelligence heads, brief coalition partners on the threats facing the country, can scarcely be called thought-provoking exercises. From the accounts given by insiders, these meetings follow the exceedingly limiting pattern of official briefings by the army and discussion on the alternatives, where the civilian input is embarrassingly nominal and speaks of little or no great comprehension of the subject on hand.
“There is no sense of direction that we get from the government; there is no structured debate that takes place the moment the big meetings are over. Once everyone has agreed to a follow-up, there has to be a follow-up. That rarely happens,” says a senior military source. The army top brass’ frustration mounts along with the gathering clouds of a three-pronged threat.
“We are stretched out in terms of deployment on the internal front; we cannot leave the North-Western Frontier open. The Indians are trying to re-open trouble on the Line of Control, and the world quarters, where we could have pleaded our case [read the US], themselves seem to be on board with the plan to surround Pakistan with security challenges,” says a senior security official who wished not to be named.
This is a real crisis. But like all crises, this one, too, offers great opportunity for the political leadership to come forward and take the mantle. That has not happened. The PPP and the Pakistan Muslim League-N continue to shuffle cards on the restoration of judges, and the impeachment of General Pervez Musharraf — the two issues that have sapped all political energies. The parliament has had only one session, and all other forums where national security debate can take place are dysfunctional — be that the National Security Council or the Defence Committee of the Cabinet. So while the country teeters on the brink of grave danger, there is no comprehensive strategy in place to deal with the outcome of enhanced US strikes inside the tribal belt and increased trouble on the Line of Control in Kashmir. In this respect, at least, the charge does stick that Islamabad is without a government these day.
The writer is former executive editor of The News and a senior journalist with Geo TV hosting a prime time current affairs program.