A year ago, Pakistan had to deal head-on with a problem that was staring it in the face for more than six months. In the first week of July 2007, militants holed up in the Lal Masjid in the heart of Islamabad — literally under the nose of the Inter-Services Intelligence, whose headquarters are nearby — dared troops surrounding the mosque and the Jamia Hafsa girls’ seminary next door to take them on. After a week of trying to get the militants to surrender, a team of army commandos launched an operation in the mosque. Over 100 people, including soldiers, militants and others, perhaps non-militants, who had chosen to stay on inside rather than surrender, were killed.
As Pakistan approaches the first anniversary of the Lal Masjid denouement, the newly elected government is confronted with a similar challenge, only far bigger. While it was sorting itself out over the judicial crisis, complacent it could tame militants through talks, the entire north-western frontier was turning into one huge Lal Masjid. Suddenly, it seemed as if the North-West Frontier Province capital Peshawar was in imminent danger of falling into Taliban hands. The Pakistan People’s Party-led government had to take the call: continue saying it would talk to the Taliban, or call in the troops? The situation had so deteriorated that, in effect, there was no option. The government chose the troops, while keeping the door open for talks.
The last few days have seen paramilitary operations in Khyber Agency of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, from where the so-called “criminal gangs” with links to Taliban militants were threatening nearby Peshawar, making brazen forays into the city in vehicles mounted with weapons, threatening music and video shop owners and kidnapping for ransom. Khyber is also a main supply route for NATO-ISAF forces in Afghanistan, and the presence of these groups and their connections to the Taliban posed a major threat to logistics convoys passing that way.
The federal government appears also to have been jolted by the failing negotiations in South Waziristan. So secretive were the negotiations that there is no clarity even on who the parties to the talks were. Some say it was the Pakistan Army calling the shots on the government side. The government insists it was talking to Mehsud tribesmen and not the Tehreek-i-Taliban commander Beithullah Mehsud, named for Benazir Bhutto’s killing. Whatever it was, little remained of it after Beithullah Mehsud’s men abducted and killed 28 tribesmen of a government-sponsored peace committee in the area. The killings appeared to be a direct message from the militants that peace can only be negotiated on their terms.
Separately, in the NWFP’s Swat valley, where the military drove the militants into the hills in November 2007, the Awami National Party-led government has been in peace negotiations with the Taliban affiliated Tehreek-e-Nifas-e-Sharia Mohammedi. But despite the ANP claims that the peace agreement is on track, militants have continued their attacks, including burning down girls’ schools and targeting security checkpoints.
Not surprisingly, the government and the Pakistan Army were under tremendous U.S. pressure to rethink their peace deals with the militants. Last week, the government announced it was alive to the threat to Pakistan from within its borders. Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani chaired an emergency meeting at which Cabinet Ministers, the Chief of the Army Staff and intelligence heads, and other senior officials accepted that terrorism and extremism posed “the gravest challenge” to Pakistan’s security, and agreed not to permit Pakistani territory to be used against other countries, “especially” Afghanistan.
The meeting also mandated the Pakistan Army as “the principal for application of military effort” to deal with the deteriorating situation, to be used on a “selective” basis, alongside peace talks and economic development of the frontier areas.
Within days, the Frontier Corps, a paramilitary, had moved in to Khyber to clean up the area. Thus far, it has gone the government’s way. None of the three groups active in the area — the Lashkar-i-Islam, its rival Ansar-ul-Islam, and a group called the Prevention of Vice and Protection of Virtue — offered any resistance, and there were few casualties.
Experts on the region who had long argued for a carrot-and-stick policy as the only solution welcomed the operation as long overdue. “Peace agreements [in the tribal areas] cannot succeed unless they [the militants] are told in very strong terms that either you come to terms or force will be used against you,” said Brigadier (retd) Mahmood Shah, a former FATA secretary.
Writing in the Daily Times, Ejaz Haider pointed out that aside from all the other good reasons for taking on the militants, it legally devolved on Pakistan to do so in order to stop the Taliban on its side from foraying into Afghanistan, where a Security Council-mandated international coalition was fighting a war against them. If Pakistan did not take action, there was sufficient ground in law for the international coalition to obtain the Security Council’s authorisation to deal with the problem on its own.
But action was bound to evoke a reaction. As the paramilitaries set to work in Khyber, Baithullah Mehsud called off the South Waziristan negotiations and warned of retaliation in Punjab and Sindh. In Swat, the Taliban suspended talks with the NWFP government. And while the religious parties attacked the government for using the Pakistan forces against “brother” Muslims under U.S pressure, the Pakistan Muslim League (N) — it already has a tense relationship with the PPP over the issue of the judiciary — also joined in. Claiming not to have been consulted by the government of which it is a part, it described the paramilitary operation as a “military invasion” against “our own people.”
Is 2007 about to repeat itself? Criticised for looking on passively as the Lal Masjid militants entrenched themselves from January to July last year, President Pervez Musharraf was the first to be surprised that instead of praising him for finally taking them on, public opinion in Pakistan rounded on him for doing so. Stories spread of “thousands of Koran-reciting little girls” killed in the operation. General Musharraf, now retired, was at the time still the Army chief, and the Pakistan Army faced public revulsion for acting against fellow Pakistanis.
The operation set off a wave of suicide attacks in the NWFP and other parts of the country, targeting soldiers and civilians alike. Arguably, the present situation is described as a fallout of Lal Masjid. The ruling Pakistan Muslim League (Q) distanced itself from the operation, and cited it as one reason for its humiliating defeat in the February 2008 elections.
Keen to cut its losses, the Pakistan Army was reportedly negotiating its withdrawal from the tribal areas much before the new government came to power. Even before the elections, the army is said to have negotiated an agreement with the North Waziristan tribals. The federal government’s peace negotiations in South Waziristan, and the provincial government’s agreement with the Swat Taliban further helped the military disengage from the region.
The question now is: will the new government retain the stomach for taking the military operations into areas such as South Waziristan where the real Taliban challenge lies, especially in the event of a militant backlash resulting in military and civilian casualties that could turn public opinion against the operations? As it is, the government has fought shy of calling the present action a “military operation,” insisting that the paramilitaries are only restoring “law and order.”
According to Mr. Haider, the government has no other option but to press ahead, as “being squeamish about the political cost has [only] served to make the situation increasingly intractable.” Islamabad, he advised, “will have to be resolute, plan carefully and execute ruthlessly.” ‘Ownership’ of war on terror
Notwithstanding PML(N) objections, analysts point out that the operations are being carried out by a popularly elected democratic civilian government. Last week’s top level meeting was seen as significant for two reasons: challenging popular rhetoric that the battle for the frontier is America’s war thrust on Pakistan, the elected government finally took “ownership” of the “war against terror” as a war in Pakistan’s national interest; secondly, it provided the backing of an elected government to military action.
“The Army knows its responsibility but it wants the use of force to be within a political framework so that it does not get all the blame when something goes wrong. With a civilian government which has been democratically elected by a majority of Pakistanis, that framework is now available,” said Mr. Shah, the former FATA secretary.
Importantly, the ANP seems to be on board although, in order to cover its own back against a possible political backlash in the NWFP, it has been keen to keep distance from the operation. Afrasiab Khattak, the party provincial chief recently appointed by the NWFP government as its “peace envoy” for negotiations with the Taliban, said the security situation in the province had “improved” after the operation was launched but said his government had nothing to do with it, as it was taking place in FATA.
No one wants to predict how much bigger the operation may get, if at all. Some sceptics are even asking if the current operation, in a relatively easy area against gangs of “petty criminals” who are not really hardened Taliban fighters, was a put-on show for the benefit of the Americans. But according to Mr. Khattak, for any policy in the region to be successful in the long-term, the federal government must discontinue its secretive dealings in the tribal areas — the ANP has not hidden its pique at being excluded from the South Waziristan talks — and the political leadership of the country must “urgently” frame a comprehensive strategy for FATA in order to end the social, economic and political isolation of the region.
For India, the PPP-led government’s new resolve to crack down on militancy is of interest for how it may impact on banned Kashmir-linked jihadist groups such as the Jaish-e-Mohammed and the Lashkar-e-Taiba that have been crawling out of the woodwork in the political confusion of recent months.