July issue 2009
A Formidable Enemy
The two-month old military campaign against the militants in the NWFP has now expanded to newer and more dangerous places, such as South Waziristan. This has created a real risk that neighbouring North Waziristan could become the new battlefield, and the conflict could then spill over into adjoining districts in the southern part of the province. Indications of such an eventuality are already visible.
The military operations could unwittingly engulf a much wider area than anticipated. Such a move would not only over-stretch Pakistan’s armed forces, but also prompt the Taliban groups to set aside their differences and join forces to face the challenge.
In fact, in their battle for survival, some of the Pakistani Taliban commanders, such as Hafiz Gul Bahadur in North Waziristan and Maulvi Nazeer in South Waziristan’s Wana area, have already taken the first steps towards extending cooperation to Baitullah Mehsud in resisting the latest Pakistan Army onslaught against him. Their alliance, Shura Ittehad-ul-Mujahideen, or the Council of the Alliance of Mujahideen, which was dormant since its launch in February 2009, is now active and is coordinating the military activities of the three militant groups to fight their common enemy — primarily the US-led coalition forces across the border in Afghanistan, and now increasingly, the Pakistani military within the country’s borders. Attacks in the last week of June by the militants led by Hafiz Gul Bahadur on military convoys on the Miramshah-Mir Ali road and in the Madakhel area in North Waziristan — which killed over 40 soldiers and left scores injured — and the rocketing of the FC camp in Wana by fighters loyal to Maulvi Nazeer, were clear signs that the Taliban in the three different war theatres were coming together to tackle Pakistan’s security forces.
One by one, the peace deals painstakingly negotiated by tribal jirgas are unravelling. The two peace treaties that the government concluded with Baitullah Mehsud, one in February 2005 and the other subsequently in 2008, no longer exist. In fact, these agreements have been invalid since Baitullah Mehsud first unleashed his suicide bombers to spread death and destruction in the country’s urban centres and for the first time claimed responsibility for all such attacks. The peace accords are now simply a scrap of paper, as Baitullah Mehsud was accused of assassinating Benazir Bhutto and became the most wanted man in Pakistan, with head-money placed on him by both Islamabad — offering Rs 50 million, or about $600,000 — and Washington, willing to pay a huge reward of $5 million, or Rs 410 million. The two peace deals in Swat, one directly with the Taliban, headed by Maulana Fazlullah, and the other with his father-in-law Maulana Sufi Mohammad, also predictably collapsed and, on both occasions, triggered more death and destruction than previously seen.
Only one peace treaty is still in place — in Wana, capital of South Waziristan — between Maulvi Nazeer and the government. But it is coming under strain due to the rising tension between the militants and the government elsewhere in the tribal areas. On paper, a peace accord also currently exists in Bajaur. But the militants in the region, led by Maulana Faqir Mohammad, deputy leader of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), have been openly violating the deal, by refusing to surrender or even curb their activities.
On June 29, the Taliban militants in North Waziristan unilaterally scrapped their February 18, 2008, peace agreement with the government, after accusing the armed forces of cooperating with the US in carrying out drone attacks against them. Through their spokesman, Ahmadullah Ahmadi, they warned that there could be no peace with the government unless the missile strikes by the pilotless US planes in North Waziristan were halted. Ahmadi also asserted that there had been over 50 US drone strikes in North Waziristan since the signing of the peace agreement that have killed hundreds of people, including women and children.
Their second complaint concerned the recent military operation in the Frontier Region (FR) Bannu, which Hafiz Gul Bahadur considers part of his fiefdom. The military action in the Janikhel and Bakkakhel areas of FR Bannu was launched to punish the militants and the local tribes, under the collective responsibility clause of the infamous Frontier Crimes Regulations (FCR), for failing to prevent the kidnapping of around 100 students of Cadet College, Razmak, and some of their teachers. It was suspected that militants loyal to Hafiz Gul Bahadur may have cooperated with Baitullah Mehsud’s men in kidnapping the (mostly teenaged) cadets in the FR Bannu area. The cadets were eventually freed unharmed due to the intervention of the strong Torikhel Wazir tribal jirga, which had threatened to take action against the kidnappers as they had guaranteed the security of the college and its students because it was located in their area.
This marked the second time that the North Waziristan militants unilaterally trashed their peace accord with the government. The first such peace deal was concluded on September 5, 2006, and scrapped 10 months later, when the militants accused the security forces of re-erecting roadside checkpoints that had been dismantled under the terms of the accord. The government, on its part, charged the militants with violating the peace agreement with impunity by setting up a parallel administration, harbouring foreign fighters and carrying out the targeted killings of pro-establishment tribal elders.
The September 2006 peace deal in North Waziristan was roundly criticised by the US and its allies, including other western nations and the Afghan government. It was blamed for an increase in the cross-border infiltration of Afghan and Pakistani Taliban to attack the coalition forces in Afghanistan. In fact, this prompted the US to put its foot down and oppose any future peace arrangements by the Pakistan government with its home-grown militants. This was evident when it opposed the peace deals in Swat, Bajaur and elsewhere. The US had, by then, made it clear that the Pakistan Armed Forces — as a recipient of American aid in the shape of weapons and money — were required to undertake sustained military action against the irreconcilable militants, instead of making peace with them.
The collapse of the latest North Waziristan peace agreement, which was incidentally signed one day before the February 18, 2008, general elections and thus enabled the government to hold polls for the lone National Assembly seat from the area with the help of the militants, could have serious implications.
Hafiz Gul Bahadur has reportedly linked the revival of the peace treaty to an end not only to the US drone attacks and the military operation in FR Bannu, but also to the ongoing action against Baitullah Mehsud in neighbouring South Waziristan. For the government, however, this would mean conceding too much to the militants, as the armed forces have already initiated action against Mehsud, while intelligence agencies have created divisions in his ranks by strengthening a rival faction of militants led by Misbahuddin Mehsud, who took over after the recent assassination of his brother Qari Zainuddin by a Baitullah man who had infiltrated the group. Besides, the Pakistan government may be unable or unwilling to stop the Americans from using their missile-fitted drones to target the militants.
There have been no US drone attacks in North Waziristan for two months now, a point that was raised by a jirga of tribal elders that met Hafiz Gul Bahadur to persuade him not to scrap his peace deal with the government. But the enigmatic Hafiz, who operates with utmost secrecy and hasn’t given an interview or interacted with the media, was unmoved. It seems he remains convinced that the security forces would go after him once they have dealt with Baitullah Mehsud, and is therefore ready to enter the battle now with Baitullah and Maulvi Nazeer.
Were the military to take action against Hafiz Gul Bahadur in North Waziristan and, in response to a provocation, start fighting Maulvi Nazeer in Wana and Shakai in South Waziristan as well, the concept of ‘good Taliban’ and ‘bad Taliban’ would be consigned to the dustbin, at least for the time-being. These two Pakistani Taliban commanders were, until now, regarded as the ‘good Taliban’ because they were reluctant to fight the Pakistani security forces or sponsor suicide bombings and were, instead, focusing more on assisting the Afghan Taliban in resisting the US-led foreign forces in Afghanistan. In contrast, Baitullah Mehsud and his allies in the tribal areas, Swat and elsewhere, and those affiliated to the TTP, were referred to as the ‘bad Taliban.’ Once this distinction ends, the military will be free to target all militants, wherever they exist. The battlelines will then be clearly drawn. However, this would also unify all the militants and the disparate jihadi groups, turning them into a formidable enemy.
One strong argument against taking on all the Taliban militants at one time is that this would over-stretch the security forces, threaten their supply lines and increase the risk of retaliatory bomb explosions, including suicide attacks in the country’s towns and cities. The destabilisation resulting from such a massive military action could be much greater than hitherto experienced. This would signal the failure of the classic ‘divide and rule’ tactic, that has routinely been the method of choice for the secret services to weaken and demoralise the militants.
An equally powerful counter-argument, on the other hand, points out that military action against militants operating in different tribal areas and districts would force powerful commanders like Baitullah Mehsud to commit their fighters to stay put in their native areas, to defend their own strongholds. In such a scenario, he and the other strong Taliban commanders would not be able to send their fighters to other fronts to reinforce their allies.
Whatever strategy is adopted by the army high command, it is obvious that this is going to be a long and difficult battle. Counter-insurgency operations are also different and far more comprehensive than conventional ones with political and development segments designed to isolate the militants and win hearts and minds. In addition, while using traditional military force to destroy the militants’ positions, aerial strikes and artillery shelling may help the armed forces to achieve certain objectives. These invariably cause civilian deaths and large-scale displacement, as we saw in Bajaur, Mohmand, Swat, Buner and Dir, and are now likely to witness in South Waziristan, North Waziristan, Orakzai and other districts. Some battles would be won, but far more important is winning the war. And that cannot happen without winning and retaining the support of the people, particularly those in the battlezones.
Rahimullah Yusufzai is a Peshawar-based senior journalist who covers events in the NWFP, FATA, Balochistan and Afghanistan. His work appears in the Pakistani and international media. He has also contributed chapters to books on the region.