September Issue 2010

By | News & Politics | Published 9 years ago

Natural disaster or any other emergency, nothing seems to deter the Pakistani militants from doing what they intend to do. It was thus not a surprise that factions of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) claimed responsibility for the terrorist attacks in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) at a time when the province and rest of the country were suffering from unprecedented rains and floods.

Anyone would be moved by the misery that the floods have inflicted on 20 million people, but not the militants. In fact, they have been trying to exploit the situation to launch attacks and take the security and law-enforcement forces by surprise, settle scores and eliminate ruling politicians, government officials and anti-militant tribesmen and clerics.

After an ominous lull in their activities, the militants had struck four days before the floods by assassinating 28-year-old Mian Rashid Hussain, the only son of the ANP-affiliated provincial Information Minister Mian Iftikhar Hussain, who was punished for being the most vocal and persistent critic of the Pakistani Taliban and its jihadi allies. As if this wasn’t enough, the next day a suicide bomber tried to attack the congregation of mourners in the bereaved family’s hometown, Pabbi, in Nowshera district and killed three policemen and several civilians, including Mian Iftikhar’s relatives. The TTP claimed responsibility for both the attacks and threatened more attacks against the ruling ANP politicians. It was also a warning to all those who are part of the government and supporters of the military operations against the militants.

A week after the floods first ravaged Khyber Pakhtunkhwa on August 4, the TTP scored another significant hit when a suicide bomber tasked by it assassinated the Frontier Constabulary Commandant Safwat Ghayur, one of Pakistan’s most daring police officers credited with eliminating and netting scores of militants and criminals. The suicide bombing in downtown Peshawar just outside the headquarters of the paramilitary Frontier Constabulary killed four civilians as well and exposed the shortcomings of the security protocol for a top cop high on the militants’ hit-list. It was a major achievement for the TTP as the killing of such top officials could demoralise the security and law-enforcement forces, and there were reports that the militants felicitated each other on eliminating Safwat Ghayur. Tipped as one of the contenders for the post of inspector-general of police in his native province, the deceased had high pedigree. He was the nephew of the late freedom fighter Sardar Abdul Rab Nishtar, cousin of KP Governor Owais Ahmad Ghani and retired Army chief General Abdul Waheed Kakat, and brother-in-law of Aftab Sherpao.

The militants have also been active on other fronts in both settled and tribal areas during the floods. Pro-government tribesmen, who have formed peace committees and mobilised into lashkars, or an armed force of volunteers to fight the militants in Mohmand and Bajaur tribal regions, faced repeated attacks. The militants not only hunted them in Mohmand Agency and Bajaur Agency but also in Peshawar, where a large number of Mohmand tribespeople and Bajauris live. The killing of anti-militant tribal elders and lashkar members in Peshawar showed the active presence of the TTP men in the city. Despite military action against them, the militants still control part of the Mohmand Agency bordering Afghanistan, and are able to strike against the security forces and pro-government tribesmen at will. The militants are making a comeback in Bajaur Agency after having suffered losses and losing their strongholds in the military operations spread over more than two years. So daring have the militants become that they attacked security posts just outside Bajaur’s heavily-guarded headquarters, Khar, and intimidated pro-government tribal elders, making common people wonder whether to listen to the government authorities or the Taliban.

Pro-government tribesmen were also attacked in the Kurram and Orakzai agencies during this period. A jirga held in Kurram Agency was bombed killing several people. Not far from Peshawar in the dangerous Mattani area on the road to Kohat, the militants operating out of the neighbouring tribal areas of Khyber Agency and Darra Adamkhel continued to make life hell for the villagers who had sided with the government against the TTP and the radical Lashkar-i-Islam group led by Mangal Bagh, and formed lashkars to defend their villages. After having eliminated the Adezai lashkar head Abdul Malik in a suicide bombing earlier, the militants struck again to kill his nephew and one of his successors, Malik Israr, at a time when part of Peshawar district was inundated by floodwater.

The pro-government lashkars in Adezai, Badaber and other villages have suffered heavy losses in their battle with the militants, who are determined to punish anyone who dares to stand up to them. The TTP and its different factions have an upper hand as they just need to send a single suicide bomber to cause mayhem. Besides, the lashkars have been complaining of not getting support from the government, particularly the police, despite promises to enable them to fight the militants. Raising lashkars, or private militias, by arming and paying volunteers to tackle the TTP militants is now the standard policy of the government and the military and the results have been mixed. Certain lashkars, like the one in Bajaur’s Salarzai area, have been steadfast and effective but others folded up after suffering heavy blows in suicide bombings sponsored by the militants or on account of inadequate government support. This policy is also fraught with risks as the lashkar members start defying the law and could become a problem in future as warlords might emerge from their ranks to challenge the writ of the government. This has happened in Afghanistan and could also happen in Pakistan.

Safwat Ghayur

Safwat Ghayur

The devastating suicide bombing on August 23 in South Waziristan’s headquarters, Wana, targeting Maulana Noor Mohammad, an influential religious scholar and former member of the National Assembly, could also be part of the militants’ campaign to eliminate those opposing them. The maulana was critical of the TTP’s war against the Pakistani security forces and he used to argue that this was no jihad. There is a strong suspicion among his followers that he was assassinated by the Hakimullah Mehsud-led TTP, which hasn’t denied or clarified its involvement in the attack. The bombing in Maulana Noor Mohammad’s mosque-madrassa complex that killed him along with around 40 other people, mostly madrassa students, has also raised tension between the Ahmadzai Wazir tribe to which they belonged and the TTP that is led by Mehsud tribesmen. The two tribes have been traditional rivals and even the Taliban militants belonging to the two tribes were unable to work together.

The devastating suicide bombing on August 23 in South Waziristan’s headquarters, Wana, targeting Maulana Noor Mohammad, an influential religious scholar and former member of the National Assembly, could also be part of the militants’ campaign to eliminate those opposing them. The maulana was critical of the TTP’s war against the Pakistani security forces and he used to argue that this was no jihad. There is a strong suspicion among his followers that he was assassinated by the Hakimullah Mehsud-led TTP, which hasn’t denied or clarified its involvement in the attack. The bombing in Maulana Noor Mohammad’s mosque-madrassa complex that killed him along with around 40 other people, mostly madrassa students, has also raised tension between the Ahmadzai Wazir tribe to which they belonged and the TTP that is led by Mehsud tribesmen. The two tribes have been traditional rivals and even the Taliban militants belonging to the two tribes were unable to work together.

Following the attack, the group of Taliban militants from Wana led by Maulvi Nazeer threatened the TTP with retaliation. This could put the two groups of militants on a path of confrontation with dangerous consequences for the people of South Waziristan. The TTP is also angry with Maulvi Nazeer for not joining their fight against the Pakistan government and the military.

On August 28, two militants being held in the office of a military intelligence agency in the Peshawar Cantonment area near the heavily-guarded US Consulate made two soldier-sentries hostage and set in motion a standoff that continued for 11 hours and paralysed life in parts of the city. The military claimed the militants were subsequently disarmed and the hostages were freed. The incident showed the danger that the militants pose, even while in custody. It also exposed the shortcomings of the security forces, even if they are holding the militants in the secure environment of their own safe-houses.

A false alarm was also raised regarding threats by the militants to foreign aid workers providing relief to the flood affectees, particularly in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The US over-stated this threat but the TTP had made no such threat. However, the possibility of an attack by the militants against the foreign aid workers and their organisations cannot be ruled out, more so due to the continuing US drone strikes in the tribal areas. The TTP would look for opportunities to seek revenge just as the US is launching missile strikes against them from their drones, even while offering assistance to the flood affectees.

The TTP factions also made hollow announcements of providing money and other assistance to the flood-hit people in the province while criticising the Pakistan government for its delayed and inadequate response to help the flood affectees and asking it not to accept US help. Nobody was impressed with the TTP offer because it was part of its propaganda campaign. Instead there was concern that the TTP was exploiting the situation and using the situation created by the floods to regroup and settle scores with the government and all those supporting the military operations against them.

This article originally appeared in the September issue of Newsline as “Business as Usual.”

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.