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Charsadda Attack: Crime Foretold

By Imtiaz Gul

Weekly Pulse, Islamabad January 03, 2007

Was the December 21, 2007 Charsadda attack part of a strategy by the surging Pakistani Taliban to surround Peshawar with a ring of destabilisation, rather than an attempt to take out Aftab Ahmad Sherpao, the former interior minister, who has been part of the military-led crackdown against anti-Musharraf and anti-US militants? Was it really the handiwork of radical Muslims, whose terror strike eliminated about 50 and maimed several other innocents at the prayer place?

The attack also triggered questions about the state’s counter-terror ability. Are the intelligence and security agencies simply paralysed in the face of mounting offensives by the militants, or is this security apparatus partially conniving with the elements, which may be acting on behalf of powers that don’t mean well on Pakistan?

Let us consider what Professor Barnett Rubin, the American expert on Afghanistan, wrote on December 22, 2007 for a blog on the current events “Informed Comment: Global Affairs.”

“The attack on Charsadda was not exactly a surprise. When I was in Islamabad on November 5 I received some information from Peshawar about the Pakistani Taliban. Here is the verbatim copy (cut and pasted with no change) from the notes I took on my laptop: people being trained for Charsadda. Will be taken over just before or after Eid Al-Adha (end of hajj). Commander is Sher Khan. Currently training his men in Chapari area of Mohmand Agency adjacent to Charsadda district.”(Commander Sher Khan was reportedly training his men to attack Charsadda).

Rubin asks, “If a five-day visit to Islamabad enabled me to learn that an attack on Charsadda was being planned for Eid, I wonder how many other people knew it. I wasn't even trying to find out about security threats. Somebody just told me in the course of a wide-ranging conversation.”
Charsadda is in northeast of Peshawar, just southwest of Malakand, where Sufi Muhammad (now jailed) led the Nifaze Tehrike Shariate Muhammadi in the early 1990s. Swat lies north of Malakand. And the entire region has witnessed pitched battles between followers of Sufi Muhammad's son-in-law, Maulana Fazlullah, and the armed forces throughout the month of December.

Security agencies and police intercepted weapons destined for Fazlullah’s fighters more than once. Military agencies reportedly intervened several times to rescue weapons and people of the organisation which had been running FM radio stations for several years.

Prof Rubin seems to be peddling the thesis that these militant forces are gradually creating a ring around Peshawar from all directions – Mohmand, Bajaur, Darra Adam Khel, and Khyber Agency, where warring militant factions have increasingly upset daily life.

He also quotes an editorial from the New York Times to underscore suspicions that fall on the intelligence and security apparatus: “as Pakistanis struggle to make sense out of the slow-moving and quite visible catastrophe that is gathering in their country the New York Times has it right today:.

Whether Prof Rubin or others, their skepticism is rooted in the fact, as he also points out, that information on militant camps offering training to potential suicide bombers, is not scant. You often stumble into youngsters from tribal agencies who either have gone through the training themselves or know people – friends and relatives – who reportedly graduated from “suicide training camps”.

This raises the invariable question as to why can’t the intelligence networks locate and take out these camps. If we as journalists know at least this much, aren’t they supposed to bang on target if their job is to hunt down people who are carrying out these attacks?

If the answer is negative this also prompts one to infer that sections of these networks probably sympathise, if not support the Taliban and the al-Qaeda followers. And that is why they turn a deaf ear and a blind eye to all the information related to the presence and activities of the militant outfits – who meanwhile symbolise forces that threaten not only Pakistan but also offer shoulders and shelters for anti-American pan-Islamist outfits like al-Qaeda.

President Musharraf’s vows notwithstanding, the real issue confronting him is whether elements within the establishment also agree to his views on militancy. The existence of such elements within the security establishment, which has had a dicey past because of involvement in the Afghan Jihad and the Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, simply runs contrary to the presidential commitment to the anti-terror war. This also blunts the efforts to take on militants, head on. That probably also explains the free run the TNSM and Taliban have had in the tribal areas and the Malakand region.

That is why the government and the state security apparatus owe an explanation to the countrymen as well as foreign skeptics who believe that sympathies within the establishment for the radical outfits severely undermine national and international efforts against them. Mere lip service and rhetoric wont chuck out these elements. Determined, sincere political approach will, perhaps!!!

(The author heads the independent Centre for Research and Security Studies, Islamabad.

Email: imtiaz@crss.pk