May issue 2009
Are We Losing to the Taliban?
That the Taliban presence in the NWFP has spread to newer areas is evident from the fact that they have moved from South Waziristan in March 2004, when the first military action was launched against them, to each one of the seven tribal agencies and to several settled districts of the province.
In fact, the Taliban’s strength grew in the aftermath of every operation by the Pakistan Army in the tribal or settled areas. Rather than defeating the militants and regaining lost territory, almost all the military operations were followed by controversial peace deals that gave legitimacy to the Taliban and recognised their status and power. With every passing year, the Taliban managed to extend their control to more territory at the expense of the government. The weaker government writ meant that the common people had little or no option but to turn to the armed Taliban for protection and solution of their problems. The Taliban leadership responded by setting up their courts to dispense justice and established a parallel administration.
The recent military operations in two new districts, Lower Dir and Buner, were further evidence of the extension of the Taliban presence to newer areas. A limited military action could also take place in the Upper Dir district, where the militants have been active in recent weeks and which serves as a supply route for the Swati Taliban due to its proximity to Swat’s Matta area.
Prior to the Lower Dir and Buner military operations, the armed forces had carried out bombing raids in the Orakzai Agency, the only tribal area out of the seven Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) that didn’t share the Durand Line border with Afghanistan. The bombing and strafing by Pakistan Air Force’s jet-fighters and gunship helicopters had killed some Taliban militants loyal to Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) head Baitullah Mehsud and forced others to shift to other places. But the aerial strikes also forced several thousand tribal people in Orakzai Agency to move to safer places. Their displacement added to the growing number of internally displaced people (IDPs) in the NWFP and it became obvious that the total was now more than one million. There was no doubt that this was the largest displacement of people in Pakistan’s 61-year history.
Despite the government’s claim that the military action in Lower Dir’s Maidan area, towards the end of April, was effectively over after two days of operations against the militants, the aerial strikes and artillery shelling didn’t stop. It was obvious that the militants hadn’t been flushed out from Maidan, which incidentally is the native home of Maulana Sufi Mohammad, the ageing founder of the Tehrik Nifaz Shariat-i-Mohammadi (TNSM) who brokered the Swat peace deal between the ANP-led NWFP government and the Swati Taliban headed by his 33-year old son-in-law, Maulana Fazlullah.
As for the military operation in Buner, it could take days and weeks and even then there is no guarantee that the once peaceful district would be fully rid of Taliban members. Though the military officials were hoping that the military action in Buner would be completed within a week, the tough Taliban resistance at Ambela Pass — which serves as the entry-point to Buner from Mardan — and the continued control of militants’ in parts of upper Buner valley shows that it won’t be easy to completely push back Taliban fighters to Swat. It is relevant to mention that most Taliban fighters resisting the military action in Buner had come from Swat in early April and dug in after receiving reinforcements from different parts of the NWFP. The arrival of their comrades from Swat and elsewhere also emboldened the relatively small number of Taliban hailing from Buner and within no time, they made their presence felt by tying the trademark black turbans of the TNSM on their heads and by joining the armed, vehicle-mounted patrols that symbolised the militants’ power.
That the Taliban had the ability to employ clever military tactics and even resort to subterfuge to achieve their objectives was clearly in evidence in Buner. Swat’s Taliban leaders came up with a number of excuses when they initially defended the entry of their armed fighters into Buner. Taliban spokesman Muslim Khan and commanders Said Rahman alias Fateh, Maulana Khalil and Mufti Bashir argued that their men had come from Swat to Buner with peaceful intentions and would confine themselves to preaching.
Following the intervention of Maulana Sufi Mohammad, the Taliban publicly announced their decision to pull out of Buner and even stage-managed the withdrawal of some of their fighters as they drove through the mountain passes on the way to Swat. But most Taliban fighters didn’t leave. The government later produced a record of a telephonic conversation between Maulana Fazlullah and his commanders in Buner in which he advised them to stay put after staging a pullout drama for the benefit of the media. Even if the veracity of the recorded conversation was questioned by the Taliban, it soon became obvious that they didn’t want to fully withdraw from Buner. The Taliban argument was that local militants belonging to Buner had stayed back, while those from Swat were being pulled out when the military began an unwarranted action against them.
The military has been claiming battleground successes against the Taliban since launching its operation in Buner on April 28. As usual, there was no independent confirmation of the military’s claims. The Taliban, too, were making wild and unsubstantiated claims. But one thing was obvious to all and sundry and that was the massive displacement of civilians as a result of the violence in both Buner and Lower Dir. Initial reports said up to 30,000 people were forced to flee the fighting in Maidan area of Lower Dir. In Buner, conflicting figures of the displaced villagers, ranging from 50,000 to 70,000 were in circulation.
Predictably, there was no government arrangement to assist the displaced people from Buner to safely shift out of the embattled valley and to put up some relief camps. By clamping a curfew in Buner, the government and the military made it hazardous for the uprooted people to seek a safe passage out of the battle zone. The unfortunate Bunerwals were on their own and most of them took refuge with relations and acquaintances in Buner or in the adjoining Mardan, Swabi and Swat districts. Others reached Peshawar or even far-off places like Karachi, where large numbers of people from Buner live and work, and which is the obvious destination for the majority of jobless and shelterless Pakistanis. The plight of the dislocated people from Buner and, before them, of those from Lower Dir, Swat, Bajaur and Mohmand tribal agencies and Waziristan, was compounded by politically-motivated and alarmist statements being issued by the MQM leader Altaf Hussain about the influx of Taliban militants to Karachi. It was like rubbing salt on the wounds of people who had suffered human and material losses back home and had nowhere else to go for earning their livelihood.
It will take a while to verify stories about the success or failure of the latest military operations in Lower Dir and Buner. The troops might kill and disable some Taliban fighters and regain control of lost territory. But it is doubtful there will be a decisive blow against the militants. That has been the record of past military actions and there is the likelihood of a repeat performance. The Taliban could strike back in a familiar pattern by organising suicide bombings to unnerve the security forces and force the government to halt the military operation.
The Pakistan Army’s first major military action in FATA focused on South Waziristan, which by 2004 had become a stronghold of Pakistani Taliban who in turn had given refuge to foreign militants including Al-Qaeda-linked Arabs and those affiliated to Tahir Yuldachev’s Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). Though the security forces had suffered losses earlier in Kazha Panga village near Wana in South Waziristan during an encounter with a group of IMU fighters and local Taliban, it was at the nearby village of Kaloosha that the troops were shocked by a deadly ambush by the heavily-armed militants. The incident seemed to have prompted the military authorities to pursue a dialogue with the Pakistani Taliban commander Nek Mohammad and conclude the Shakai peace deal. The image of Peshawar Corps Commander, Lt Gen Safdar Hussain, embracing Nek Mohammad at a madrassa in Shakai is enduring as this was the first of the several peace accords that the military and militants concluded with each other after rounds of fighting. Each peace deal largely favoured the militants as the government and military negotiated from a position of weakness. The peace deals were largely meant to buy time for the two sides. None of the peace agreements lasted as there were violations soon after such pacts were inked. After a while, every such deal became meaningless, through the parties to the conflict, and signatories of the peace accord refrained from publicly scrapping the agreement.
Subsequently, there were three more peace agreements in South Waziristan. One with Commander Nek Mohammad’s successors in Wana, after he was killed in a US drone missile strike in April 2004, and two with Baitullah Mahsud, in February 2005 and 2008. There were also two peace deals with Taliban commander Hafiz Gul Bahadur, in North Waziristan in September 2006 and in 2009. Two peace deals were made with the Pakistani Taliban in Bajaur where the TTP deputy leader Maulana Faqir Mohammad and other militant commanders heading like-minded factions fought against the military.
In Swat, the first peace agreement between the Maulana Fazlullah-led Taliban and the ANP-PPP coalition government in the NWFP lasted for two months only, after it was concluded in May 2008. The second such deal, this time involving Maulana Sufi Mohammad’s TNSM and the NWFP government, was made in February 2009 and is, in fact, already under strain. The Swat Taliban are indirectly part of the peace accord mediated by Maulana Sufi Mohammad, who for the last three decades has been waging a largely peaceful struggle for the enforcement of Shariah in Malakand division, which includes Swat.
The “Shariah for peace” deal promised enforcement of the Shariah-based Nizam-e-Adl Regulation in the seven districts of the Malakand region and the Kohistan district of Hazara division. The Qazi courts, already functioning in the area, were to be better empowered and a timeframe strictly followed for dispensing quick and affordable justice. An appellate court known as Darul Quza was also to be established. Delivering justice to the satisfaction of the litigants and the people of Swat and rest of the Malakand division won’t be easy and before long there would be the familiar situation of a largely dissatisfied population showing disappointment regarding the new the system of justice and governance.
The Swat peace deal could collapse as a consequence of the military action in Lower Dir and Buner. After all, the Swat Taliban are doing most of the fighting against the security forces in Buner. The military operation could be extended to Swat if the Taliban militants refuse to put down their arms and continue attacking and abducting soldiers, policemen, government employees and pro-government notables. That would be the end of the peace arrangements and the start of a new round of fighting. It would also have ramifications in other districts and tribal agencies where the Taliban maintain an armed presence. The fact that the Swat Taliban are part of the Baitullah Mehsud-led TTP is a reminder that the fate of a peace deal in one theatre of war is linked to the situation elsewhere in FATA and the NWFP. By the same yardstick, military action in one tribal area or district has fallout in the rest of the tribal agencies and districts. No deal could work in isolation and bring durable peace.
Pressure by political and civil society groups at home and criticism by the US and its allies abroad has pushed the Pakistani armed forces to launch the new military operations in Lower Dir and Buner. But both the army authorities and the ruling politicians, particularly those from the secular and nationalist ANP in the NWFP, still want to give peace a chance. The ANP-led NWFP government hasn’t given up its efforts to woo Maulana Sufi Mohammad and keep him on board while implementing the Nizam-e-Adl Regulation in Swat and the seven other districts of Malakand and Hazara divisions. However, the situation is deteriorating by the day.
The US, in particular, has kept up the pressure on the Pakistan government and the military by criticising the Swat peace deal and interpreting it as an abdication of authority to the Taliban. Washington also tried to scare the Pakistani authorities into submission by ensuring that its civil and military officials issued alarmist statements on a daily basis about the likely Taliban march on Islamabad and the possibility of Pakistan’s nuclear assets falling into the hands of the militants. If this strategy doesn’t work and the Pakistani authorities continue to make peace deals with the militants, the US could go for drone attacks on Taliban positions in Swat or in other districts of Malakand division. This is a familiar US tactic for disrupting and foiling peace dialogues in Pakistan’s tribal areas. The first such missile strike that caused the scrapping of the Shakai peace deal was the one that eliminated Commander Nek Mohammad in South Waziristan. The same strategy was used to put an end to peace accords in North Waziristan and Bajaur.
In such dire circumstances, Pakistan would have to decide whether it should continue searching for an indigenous solution to the grave problems of militancy and extremism in the NWFP or adopt the US strategy that forbids any dialogue or peace arrangement with the militants.
Though the US and NATO policies based on projection and use of brute military power in Afghanistan hasn’t delivered even after almost eight years, the Americans are adamant that the same strategy be applied by the Pakistan Army. Both military action and peace deals have been tried to cope with the challenge and neither has worked. Every military operation has resulted in the expansion of the Taliban presence and produced a bigger pool of militants — many of them drawn from families and tribes that suffered “collateral damage” during the bombing and shelling carried out by the army. The peace deals, on the other hand, strengthened the hands of the Taliban and made their de facto ascendance in the tribal areas something akin to de jure presence. There is no easy solution to the critical challenges staring Pakistan in the face. Sadly enough, Pakistan’s ruling elite appears incapable of rising to the occasion and saving the country.
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.