New Optimism accompanying army actions in Pakistan
By Imtiaz Gul
Weekly Pulse Sep 18, 2009
“When the pet develops rabies and starts biting its own mentors, it must be put to sleep, no way around it.” This statement that a very senior general involved in military operations in the Northwestern Frontier Province (NWFP) made in my presence in late April suggested a definite new realization – if not change of heart altogether– as far as the military establishment was concerned; until then, skepticism had accompanied the army’s claims that it was doing its best to hunt down “miscreants.”
Doubts were rooted in the common perception that the security establishment – because of its old nexus with militant outfits – was only shadow- boxing to impress the world and would not harm those who it had created. But the efforts sofar have helped in erasing this perception partially at least. In the process close to 350 soldiers and officers lost their lives since the operation in Malakand/Swat region was launched in early May.
Additionally, the dramatic capture of Muslim Khan and four other Taliban militants in a military-intelligence sting operation on September 3 marked another deadly blow to the embattled Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). It underscored the third major setback to the dreaded outfit since August 5, when a CIA-operated Drone-fired missile took out Baitullah Mehsud, the TTP founder.
Only a few days after Mehsud’s elimination, the TTP spokesman Maulvi Mohammad Omar was captured in the Mohmand tribal region. Also, the fate of Hakimullah Mehsud, whom the organisation’s shura purportedly picked up as the new chief on August 25, is still uncertain; with virtually no sign of him since the day he was made the Ameer. Similarly, another fierce Al Qaeda aligned TTP leader Maulvi Fazlullah is handicapped by serious wounds and reportedly under siege and probably counting his days as a free icon of terror. Similary, Shah Dauran, another dreaded associate of Fazlullah, who used to spread terror through a mobile FM radio, is also dead.
Muslim Khan as the TTP Swat spokesman had owned up scores of suicide bombings on the security forces and admitted attacks on dozens of girls’ schools in the Swat region. Khan had also claimed responsibility for sending two suicide bombers to weapons manufacturing complex - the Pakistan Ordnance Factories near Islamabad – where about 90 people were blown into pieces in one of the deadliest attacks in April 2008.
The sting operation became possible only after Kamal Khan, an old acquaintance of Muslim Khan settled in the USA, agreed to become part of the game; the strategy aimed at creating a façade of negotiations and trapping the militants who had been publicly vowing attacks on the Pakistani government institutions.
Kamal Khan and the Military Intelligence moved in tandem and eventually a raid involving some six dozen commandos resulted in the capture at a village Manglore.
“It was purely an intelligence-driven operation,” a very senior army official overseeing the operation told Foreign Policy. “It was not a smooth affair. Six of their guards got killed in the fire-fight that erupted when the commandos moved in.”
As a whole, the events since August 5, when the US missile put Baitullah Mehsud
to sleep, underline a pattern that should evoke optimism and confidence both in and outside Pakistan. It also erases fears of a potentially long-drawn conflict in the tribal areas. Let us consider why.
Firstly, in early April when the TTP militants, taking cover of a controversial peace deal, began occupying strategic heights in Buner, Mingora, Malam Jabba and other parts of Malakand, it shocked and alarmed the army and the civilians alike. Their worries multiplied when Taliban militants abducted four Pakistan army commandos in the mountainous Buner valley and eventually executed them.
Currently, the army, backed up by local government officials, is pursuing a two-pronged strategy; chasing and fixing militants on the one hand, and protecting civilians from the wrath of despaired militants on the other while consolidating the hold on cleared areas.
Most analysts, nevertheless, believe much more needs to be done.
“The army has done that indeed but the credibility of the entire state's ability to permanently fix rogue elements is still at stake," said Talat Masood, defence analyst. "Pakistani state institutions have to deliver as an increasingly skeptical and cynical public looks to its government not only for safety but also for a radical improvement in governance," Masood added.
The second favorable indicator is the return of more than 1.65 million people since mid July to their homes in the Malakand region. It also underscores that perceptions have given way to confidence in the government and army actions against “miscreants.” And topping of the ice came with the arrests of Muslim Khan and four other central leaders of the Swat chapter of the TTP, that now appears facing attrition. It worked as a huge psychological booster as well.
Mayors of several sub-districts, particularly those of Kabal, Kooza Bandi , Matta and Chaharbagh, have also meanwhile returned to revive public confidence in government institutions. But most of mainstream politicians – Members of Parliament in particular – still feel insecure and intimidated by militants.
“It is now the politicians turn to get back home and lead the community from the front,” says analyst Anees Jeelani. He said the security forces can do this job only partially and giving permanence to the entire process – establishing the writ of the government and rehabilitation - would require the politicians to lead from the front.
The third factor relates to the interception of dozens of alleged suicide bombers and the drop in such attacks. The biggest reason for this could be the confusion and disarray in the TTP ranks, who suffered one blow after the other since early August.
Fourthly, most of the western allies, led by the United States, now look up to Islamabad in appreciation for its actions against militants.
“One of the ways I measure progress is if I look at Pakistan over the last 12 months, the success of their military in terms of its operations in Swat and the movement in that direction to address extremists in their own country,” US Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen stated at a Pentagon news conference on September 6.
Since September 5 a year ago, when the army chief General Ashfaq Kiyani, issued a veiled warning against the repeat of a boots-on-the-ground operation by American Marines in South Waziristan, the level of trust between the two armies has considerably improved. The intelligence sharing has gone up and so has the coordination, reflected also in the presence of a large number US military and intelligence assets in the Waziristan region along with the Pakistani forces.
As a whole, the war against militants seems in full swing; the operation against criminals in the guise of Taliban in the Khyber Agency and the Pakistan Air Force bombardment of suspected militant hideouts in Waziristan continues. So is the push in the Swat region, where large areas been cleared and handed over to civilian authorities.
Pakistanis at large therefore expect that the army and the government remain united and take this war to its logical conclusion. Making people like Muslim Khan and Hakimullah Mehsud accountable for the death and destruction since December 2007 would invariably inject new optimism and revive confidence in state institutions.
And one probably would not be surprised if, as a result of Muslim Khan’s pointations, his mentor Maulvi Fazlullah also emerges in custody – perhaps when President Asif Zardari urges world leaders in a September 24 meeting at New York to compensate Pakistan for its efforts against extremists, who – under the tutelage of Al Qaeda - meanwhile pose a grave threat to the entire region.
(The author heads the independent Centre for Research and Security Studies, Islamabad. And the author of a recent Penguin publication “The Al-Qaeda Connection – Taliban and Terror in Tribal Areas.”
(The author heads the independent Centre for Research and Security Studies, Islamabad.