October Issue 2008
The Turning Point
Tanks rumble along the dusty road and helicopter gunships hover overhead. Soldiers keep a sharp eye out for snipers hiding inside the mud houses. Gunmen will be the only ones at home; the inhabitants of Tang Khatta, a small border village, have fled the fighting. In the distance, there is the sound of machine gun fire as troops try to flush out militants holed up in a ravine. “It is not easy to dislodge these heavily armed men,” says Colonel Javaid Baluch, a local commander. Earlier, a grenade was thrown at an army bunker, blowing off the legs of a major and seriously injuring three others.
This is a scene from the Bajaur tribal region, which has emerged as the latest centre of Pakistan’s war against militancy, after Swat and Waziristan. Bajaur, which borders south-eastern Afghanistan, has been the main operating base of the Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Now it is the venue for the fiercest battle between the Pakistan Army and the Islamic fighters since Pakistan joined the US war on terror in 2001.
More than 8,000 Pakistani troops have been involved in the six-week operation. Military officials claim to have killed 1,000 militants so far — yet the hostilities show no signs of abating. A constant supply of fresh fighters from inside the country and across the border in Afghanistan is helping the militants to stay in the fight.
“It is the centre of gravity of the militant movement,” remarks Major-General Tariq Khan, the burly commanding officer leading the Bajaur campaign, admitting that he is facing a formidable enemy, armed with sophisticated weapons and a good communications network.
“If they lose here, they lose everything. We will eradicate 60% of the militancy from Pakistan if we win this battle in Bajaur,” he adds.
His estimate is probably not way off the mark. On September 22, the battle with the extremists came home to Islamabad with a huge truck bomb that devastated the Marriott Hotel, killing 53 people and injuring hundreds more. The roots of that attack and much more of the violence in Pakistan, however, are to be found in militant strongholds such as Bajaur.
Pakistani security and intelligence officials believe that the attack at the Marriott, the biggest of its kind, signalled the beginning of a new phase of the militant offensive. What is most alarming is the fact that the terrorists seem able to operate in the country’s capital and its main cities with impunity.
The five-storey hotel, a favourite rendezvous for journalists, foreign diplomats and businessmen, is located just blocks away from the parliament, the President’s House and the Prime Minister’s House. Marriot Hotel was a prime target because a large number of foreigners, including American and British nationals, used to stay there.
This is not the first time that militants have been involved in attacks in the Pakistani capital. In June, a suicide car bomber killed at least six people near the Danish Embassy in Islamabad. A statement attributed to the Al-Qaeda took responsibility for that blast, which is believed to have targeted Denmark over the publication of ‘blasphemous’ cartoons depicting Prophet Muhammad (PBUH).
Many believe the attack at the Marriott Hotel was a reprisal for the military campaign in Bajaur. “It is a statement, telling the Pakistani political elite that the war and its cooperation with the US will cost it dearly,” says Khalid Aziz, former chief secretary of the NWFP, who has also worked in the tribal region.
The operation in Bajaur, which began last month, has turned into full-blown guerrilla warfare. More than 300,000 people have fled the battle zone. The offensive marked a more aggressive strategy on the part of the Pakistani armed forces as the new government of President Zardari came under mounting US pressure for more effective action against the sanctuaries of the Taliban.
The violence after the operation has been far greater than in any previous confrontation. With growing numbers of civilians paying the price, the fear is that the motivation to turn against the authorities — perhaps by carrying out another hotel bombing in another big city — is increasing for many.
Defence officials insist that it is vital to break the militants’ stronghold in Bajaur to prevent the whole of north-western Pakistan from falling to the Taliban. Already, Peshawar, the provincial capital of the NWFP, is under siege, with police unable to leave their stations in the suburbs. “The militants have already usurped Pakistan’s sovereignty over large tracts of territory,” says Aziz.
The military has now started backing tribal militias that are rising to fight Taliban militants — a development the government hopes would turn the tide against the insurgents. In the past few weeks, the militias or lashkars have started emerging not only in Bajaur, but also in the Kurram and Khyber agencies, as well as in Dir district. Senior government and military officials maintain that the lashkars could provide a counterweight to the militants. “The tribesmen have risen against the militants. It could be the turning point in our fight against militancy,” says Owais Ghani, governor NWFP. The government is providing financial and political support to the lashkars.
One of the biggest lashkars has been formed by the Salarzai tribe in Bajaur. Sporting a white skull cap and totting an old Kalashnikov rifle, Malik Munasib Khan exhorts his followers to stand up against Taliban militants. “They are killing our people and destroying our land,” the white-bearded chieftain of the Salarzai tribe tells hundreds of men gathered at a dusty village market centre surrounded by mud houses.
The Salarzai lashkar claims to have 4,000 armed fighters under its control. The local maliks claim that they have driven Taliban fighters out of their region, and torched their homes. Initially, the Salarzai tribe — one of five main tribes in Bajaur — had supported the local Taliban. But they rebelled after the militants tried to break the old tribal structure.
Analysts say the resistance may have some parallels with the “Sunni awakening” in Iraq, where tribesmen took on Al-Qaeda militants in Anbar province and elsewhere. However, the development in northern Pakistan is rooted much more in the local Pashtun culture and tradition.
“It is a reaction to the Taliban threatening the local tribal culture and tradition,” says Khalid Aziz.
Initially, the lashkars were organised as an indigenous resistance, in the absence of help from the local administration. Analysts maintain that the military operations in the tribal areas have failed to end the insurgency, because it was directed at the symptoms of the problem and not the predicament itself.
A militia in Khyber tribal agency last week forced the Taliban out of the Malagori area close to the main highway linking Pakistan with Afghanistan, and torched their houses. The militants operating in the area had also been involved in attacks on convoys carrying supplies to NATO forces in Afghanistan.
The residents formed a 3,000-strong armed group after clashes with the militants, many of whom came from other areas. The tribesmen warned of severe punishment to anyone providing sanctuary to the Taliban.
Last week, a tribal jirga of the Payandakhel tribe in Dir district which borders the Bajaur region, announced the formation of their own lashkar to fight the Taliban after militants briefly took some 300 pupils hostage at a local school. The two hostage-takers blew themselves up after armed tribesmen stormed the school building and freed the students. The lashkar also forced scores of Taliban fighters to flee from the area. A tribal leader said the decision was taken after the police failed to protect the residents.
But some analysts are concerned that the emergence of these tribal lashkars could escalate the fighting lead to a mini civil war, pitting pro-and anti-Taliban Pashtuns against each other. They say that the lashkars have given a breather to the military which has suffered huge casualties in the fighting against the militants. But there is also the fear that the lashkars may become too powerful and challenge the government. The NWFP governor rejects this argument. “It will not happen,” he says. “They are operating under government control.”
Apart from worries over the loyalty of the lashkars, another key dilemma is the growing conflict between Pakistan and the US on the issue of how to tackle terrorism. The decisions by the US administration to target suspected Taliban sanctuaries inside the tribal regions of Pakistan and covertly authorising cross-border raids from Afghanistan by the Special Operational Forces, have brought relations between the two allies to a new low.
According to a senior Pakistani official, the US has coordinated with Pakistan in planning drone attacks on suspected militant targets inside Pakistani areas until recently. But the attacks are now taking place without Pakistan even being informed. Pakistan maintains that the US attacks, which resulted in civilian casualties, have strengthened support for the militants among the locals.
Reports of the Pakistani military being ordered to shoot at US troops trying to cross the border has heightened, dramatically, the prospect of a clash between the allied forces. Most attacks by US drones are aimed at suspected Taliban sanctuaries in Waziristan’s tribal areas where Pakistan has reached peace deals with tribesmen. Pakistan said that such attacks, which have caused civilian casualties, have hindered its own anti-terrorism efforts, increasing support for the militants. “We cannot overstretch ourselves by fighting on so many fronts,” says a senior Pakistani army officer.
“Pakistan is caught between more aggressive military actions by the Americans on the one hand and militants on the other,” says Maleeha Lodhi, the former Pakistani envoy to Washington and London and now a fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.
The US officials allege that elements within the ISI have been aiding Taliban militants. Pakistan has named a new ISI chief amid pressure from the United States to revamp the country’s powerful spy agency.
Lt General Ahmed Shuja Pasha has replaced Lieutenant-General Nadeem Taj, who had an uneasy relationship with the new Pakistani civilian government of President Asif Ali Zardari, and was among the officers who Washington wanted to be purged from the agency. Two other deputies have already been moved out of the ISI.
Mounting anti-American sentiment has overshadowed the latest terrorist strike in Islamabad, with public outrage in many parts being directed less at the militants responsible for the attack and more at the US. Most Pakistanis refuse to believe that their fellow Muslims could be involved in such assaults and, instead, blame US policies.
More frightening perhaps, are the conspiracy theories on the involvement of the “foreign hands,” being propounded by Pakistani opposition leaders. “Pakistan’s leadership confronts the challenge of reconciling domestic opinion with international demands. Squaring this circle is going to really test the Zardari-led government,” says Lodhi.
Critics attacked President Zardari for failing so far to provide the kind of leadership required at this critical juncture, and are equally critical of his government for bungling through, without any plan or strategy. As the country struggles to keep itself afloat in the face of an economic downslide, the battle against the Al-Qaeda-backed militancy is becoming increasingly difficult. President Zardari’s statements during his trip to New York does not give much hope to a country fighting a battle for its survival.
Zardari appeared to be a man with little understanding of the problems, and his remark that President Bush’s policies had made the world “safer” must have shaken even the Americans. His promise of taking Pakistan’s war against terrorism to its end sounded hollow, as back home his government failed to put in place a cogent and coherent anti-terror policy. “The danger is that if the government fails to respond soon with a comprehensive and effective policy, the slide will continue, overwhelming the government and stretching the military to its limits,” says Talat Masood, a retired general and a leading political commentator.
The writer is a senior journalist and author. He has been associated to the Newsline as senior editor at.