July Issue 2008

By | News & Politics | Published 16 years ago

The PPP-led coalition government’s peace initiative, or should we call it continuation of the old military-inspired policy, in the NWFP and FATA was floundering after some degree of success in controlling violence sponsored by Islamic militants, following the February 18 general elections. The June 28th announcement by the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) that it was ending peace talks and scrapping accords with the government, contributed to the existing distrust between the two sides and raised fears about a new round of fighting in parts of the tribal and settled areas of the province.

However, there was no large-scale fighting as the military operation was confined to the Khyber Agency, a strategically important tribal area close to Peshawar that provides the major land route to Afghanistan. At first, the conflict also spilled over to other areas and the military refrained from tackling the Pakistani Taliban militants in their strongholds in South Waziristan, North Waziristan, Darra Adamkhel, Bajaur and Swat. Also, the three militant groups that were the apparent target of the assault by the paramilitary Frontier Corps (FC) in Khyber Agency’s Bara area, were not directly linked to the Pakistani Taliban. This led critics to accuse the military of avoiding action against the Pakistani Taliban, who are now in de facto control of some of the tribal borderlands and are challenging the government’s writ in several places elsewhere in the NWFP.

As usual, the Baitullah Mehsud-led TTP made unilateral announcements about scrapping the peace accords that its components had signed with the government in Swat, Darra Adamkhel and Mohmand Agency, and suspending talks with the authorities elsewhere in the NWFP and FATA. All its previous declarations, including those about ceasefires, exchange of prisoners and holding of peace jirgas, have been unilateral. The government, as a matter of policy and on account of an understanding with the Taliban, has maintained silence with regard to all such developments. Though it is no longer a secret, the government and the military have refused to acknowledge any formal ceasefire, prisoners’ swaps and the withdrawal of troops from certain tribal areas to avoid embarrassment and to deflect international pressure. Certain things remain unsaid despite being a fact of life, and the same holds true for aspects of the government’s policy with regard to the tribal areas and the militants.

khyber-operation-2-july08Although the TTP spokesman, Maulvi Omar, cited other reasons for the collapse of the peace accords, the main cause appeared to be the military operation in the Bara area of the Khyber Agency. A day earlier, his leader and the TTP head, Baitullah Mehsud, had issued a warning to the government to stop action against the Pakistani Taliban or face the consequences. He had specifically mentioned the arrest of some Taliban members in Nowshera and elsewhere, and the demolition of the house of Taliban commander Hayatullah in Tank, to argue that the government was initiating action against the Taliban at the behest of the US.

For his part, Maulvi Omar said the Pakistani Taliban would come to the aid of the militant tribal commander Mangal Bagh, who operates out of Bara and was previously not aligned to the TTP and Mehsud. In fact, Mangal Bagh had earlier refused to join the TTP by arguing that he would not fight the Pakistan Army or the government, and would instead focus on reforming society and ridding it of vice. He had also refused to send his fighters to Afghanistan or to Waziristan and Swat to fight alongside the Pakistani and Afghan Taliban. However, there were recent reports that Mangal Bagh had secretly joined hands with the TTP and Baitullah Mehsud and promised to disrupt fuel, food and other supplies from Pakistan to the US-led coalition forces in Afghanistan via the Khyber Pass. There have been growing attacks on oil tankers and containers taking supplies through the Khyber Agency to Afghanistan. Scores of oil tankers and containers have been destroyed in attacks in the border town of Torkham or while passing through the meandering Khyber Pass highway. Some of these attacks revealed that the containers were also transporting arms and parts of gunship helicopters for NATO forces. Taliban militants seized some of the cargo and made use of it or sold it in the black market.

The FC’s military operations targeted the assets of three militant tribal commanders in the Bara area. The foremost target was Mangal Bagh, head of the Lashkar-i-Islam group and the most powerful of the three. He inherited the leadership of Lashkar-e-Islam from a hardline Islamic cleric, Mufti Munir Shakir, who was expelled from the Khyber Agency as part of a solution proposed by a government-backed jirga to prevent further polarisation and fighting between his men and those of rival clergyman, Pir Saifur Rahman. Mangal Bagh was the one sending armed men to Peshawar city and adjoining villages located near the boundary with Khyber Agency to abduct people and threaten those who were allegedly running brothels, gambling dens and music shops. He also had about 20 Christians abducted from Peshawar’s Academy Town for allegedly indulging in vices and occupying a property that was once part of a madrassah. The abductees were subsequently freed in Bara, but not before the ANP-led coalition government in the NWFP suspended several senior police officials for negligence in protecting the Christians. The ruling coalition, which also includes the PPP as a junior coalition partner, claimed the abductions were part of a conspiracy to bring down the provincial government.

khyber-operation-3-july08Mangal Bagh’s nominal ally, Haji Namdar, was another tribal militant commander who came under attack. His base was in his native Bar Qambarkhel area in Bara tehsil. His house was destroyed in a mysterious strike that killed eight people. Tribesmen and some reporters who visited the scene of the attack said that all the people killed were civilians. Unnamed security officials claimed the military targeted the place as it was Namdar’s headquarters. For his part, Namdar blamed the US-led coalition forces for the attack and claimed a drone was used to fire a missile at his house. However, he was unable to produce evidence to prove his claim.

The third militant group that was ostensibly a target of the FC’s action was Ansarul Islam, headed in the past by an Afghan spiritual figure Pir Saifur Rahman, who was later expelled and forced to take up residence outside Lahore. The group didn’t suffer any significant losses in the military operation in Bara since it doesn’t have much of a presence there. Its present military commander is Mehboob Ustad, whose fighting strength was reduced after being defeated in a battle for turf to Mangal Bagh’s Lashkar-i-Islam in Bara and losing scores of fighters in a conflict that has continued over the past few years. He and his top lieutenants had to shift to the mountainous Tirah valley to survive. The Ansarul Islam is believed to be stronger than the Lashkar-i-Islam in Tirah, but the remoteness of the valley and absence of government control means the group doesn’t have much political and military clout and is unable to get the attention of the media. In comparison, the Lashkar-i-Islam and Mangal Bagh have been grabbing the attention of the government and the media and are growing in strength. Bara’s proximity to Peshawar has also made Mangal Bagh and his group critical to the security, or insecurity to be precise, of the capital of NWFP.

As the FC’s military operation progressed, its officials claimed they had killed several armed men resisting their deployment in Bara and destroyed Mangal Bagh’s headquarters. The FC shelled the positions of militants amid reports that Mangal Bagh had shifted to the remote Tirah valley near the border of Afghanistan. About 700 FC soldiers were initially sent to Bara to secure the town and to beef up the defences of Peshawar following unsubstantiated and rather mysterious reports that Mangal Bagh and other militant commanders were planning to attack the city. Mangal Bagh, in earlier interviews, had refuted the reports that he was drawing plans to assault Peshawar. The TTP also announced that it had no intention of attacking Peshawar. It accused the government of spreading rumours about an attack on the city to hide its own plans to start fresh military operations against the Pakistani Taliban in the tribal areas and districts such as Swat. Baitullah Mehsud even described Peshawar as “a beloved city that represented the identity of the Frontier” and would not be harmed despite the Taliban’s capacity to take it if they ever wished to do so. He remarked that Peshawar wasn’t Srinagar and so the Taliban wouldn’t want to capture it.

It soon became apparent that the military operation in Bara was primarily aimed at pushing the armed tribal militants back so that they no longer threatened Peshawar and kept the Khyber Pass, linking Peshawar with Landikotal and Torkham and beyond with Jalalabad and Kabul, open to traffic, including the huge oil tankers and containers, to serve as a lifeline of all kinds of supplies to the NATO forces operating in Afghanistan. The US and its western allies, which together have up to 70,000 troops in Afghanistan, had realised that their land supply routes from Pakistan were becoming increasingly unsafe and had, therefore, already concluded an agreement with Russia to use the overland routes from Europe to the Central Asian states, and onward to Afghanistan, for supplying their forces. It appears that the insecurity in the tribal areas, particularly in Khyber Agency, would force NATO military commanders to re-route their supply lines and transfer the bulk of their fuel, food and even arms supplies to Afghanistan via Russia and its friendly neighbours in Central Asia.

The existence of the militant threat to Peshawar appears to have been exaggerated. The military claimed it had neutralised the threat after deploying troops in Bara, where Khyber Agency’s political administration had lost its writ to the militants loyal to Mangal Bagh. However, some residents of Peshawar felt their city was never at risk from the militants, who are a divided lot and lack the arms and manpower to take the city and hold on to it. They were definitely concerned by the forays that Mangal Bagh’s men were making into Peshawar to abduct people and, allegedly, to extort money. Peshawarites expected the government, the armed forces and the law enforcement agencies, which have a strong presence in Peshawar, as it is the headquarters of the Frontier Corps, Frontier Constabulary and Frontier Police, to protect the city and were getting impatient that not much had been done to secure Peshawar’s defences.

khyber-operation-4-july08Despite the alarm caused by the scrapping of the peace accords by the TTP and the military action in Khyber Agency, the security situation didn’t deteriorate to the extent that was reported. In the absence of military action against the Pakistani Taliban in their strongholds, the militants had no need to resort to retaliatory strikes. It appears that the government was still in contact with the TTP through tribal intermediaries. It is possible that efforts are being made to save the existing peace accords and revive the stalled negotiations with the TTP. The TTP has issued instructions to its components to end all contacts with the government after scrapping the peace accords, but resumption of talks cannot be ruled out in future. Though the Maulana Fazlullah-led militants in Swat have declined to hold another round of peace talks, they haven’t yet officially scrapped their June 21 accord with the ANP-PPP coalition government in NWFP. In fact, the Swat militants were, until now, demanding quicker implementation of the 15-point peace accord with the provincial government, including the release of their detained men and payment of compensation to the families that suffered human and material losses during the military operations in Swat.

Thus, the fate of the Swat peace accord isn’t clear as it hasn’t been scrapped by the two sides. The accord in Swat was different as it was signed by the Taliban in Swat with the provincial government and not with the federal government or the military. The TTP would certainly try to compel the Taliban chapter in Swat to scrap the accord but the militants in Swat are also under compulsion from the local population, and even its supporters in the valley, to pursue a peaceful solution of the conflict in a bid to revive the vital tourism sector. The TTP surely has clout over Maulana Fazlullah and his supporters in Swat after having sent fighters to Swat last year to fight the military. It could even sponsor attacks in Swat to force Fazlullah to follow its line and refrain from taking an independent stand. The recent burning down of a ski resort and hotel in Swat’s Malam Jabba could be one such attack launched by hardliners among the militants.

Apart from the domestic aspects of the conflict, the international dimensions are also significant as they concern the success or failure of the US-led military mission in neighbouring Afghanistan. Both, Kabul and Washington, along with other western capitals that have deployed troops in Afghanistan as part of the NATO forces, were opposed to peace accords between the government and militants in Pakistan. They must be hoping that the Pakistani military’s renewed operations against the militants in FATA would once again involve the Taliban in battles at home and, therefore, stop them from infiltrating into Afghanistan to launch attacks against the US-led coalition forces. This would ease the pressure on NATO and Afghan government forces, which in recent weeks and months have faced a rise in attacks by the Taliban and suffered a record number of casualties since the US invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001. Besides the intensity of their attacks, there is now better planning and sophistication involved in these assaults. The foreign forces and the Afghan government also faced huge embarrassment following the jailbreak in Kandahar in which more than 1,100 prisoners, including about 400 Taliban fighters, were able to escape, and the attack on the national parade in Kabul on April 28 when President Hamid Karzai and other dignitaries had to be hastily rescued.

President Karzai’s outburst against Pakistan was apparently a result of the frustration caused by these setbacks. He had a point when he objected to the threats by the Pakistani Taliban commanders to send fighters to Afghanistan and threatened to send his soldiers into Pakistani tribal areas to hunt them down. But the threat of sending his troops across the international boundary into Pakistan was provocative and undiplomatic, and it would be naïve of him to expect the Pakistan government and the military to cooperate with the Afghan government after hurling such threats. The same holds true for the US, which attacked a Pakistani border post in Mohmand Agency and killed 13 paramilitary FC soldiers. With the security situation deteriorating in Afghanistan and fears of a new round of military operations and terrorist strikes looming in Pakistan, it is obvious that the US and its allies would be happy if the peace accords between the Pakistani militants and the government were consigned to the dustbin so that the Pakistan Army could resume its military operations against the likes of Baitullah Mehsud. Otherwise, we should expect more US missile strikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas and even an occasional ‘hot pursuit’ ground assault across the Pak-Afghan border to keep up the pressure on the militants and, at the same time, foil the Pakistan government’s plans to pursue peace accords with its home-grown Taliban.

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.