The military has stopped firing “miscreants’ positions” in Swat. The miscreants, on their part declared ceasefire – not only in Swat, but also in the neighbouring Bajaur Agency. Almost coinciding with the Maulana Sufi Mohammad-Fazlullah deal is the alliance that Baitullah Mehsud, the maverick chief of the Tehreeke Taliban Pakistan (TPP), one of the most dreaded entities in the tribal areas, has struck with his erstwhile rival from the Ahmedzai Wazir region i.e. Wana, South Waziristan. Hafiz Gul Bahadur, the chief of the Taliban of North Waziristan, is third component of the “Shoorae Ittehadi Mujahideen.”
The Ittehadi Shoora was born on 20th February, the day when Sufi concluded his talks with Fazlullah in Matta. Two days later the Bajaur Taliban leader Maulvi Faqir Mohammad also declared a unilateral ceasefire and in fact went an extra mile by showering praise on the Pakistan Army. And on Feb 22, the Afghan Taliban chief Mulla Omar reportedly urged the Pakistani Taliban to refrain from attacking Pakistani security forces.
While the Swat deal – as it remains wrapped in confusion as far as Sharia courts and the future army role in the region is concerned, has evoked largely adverse reactions from across the world – led by Richard Holbrooke, the US special envoy, France, India, the U.K., e.g. – the Pakistani officials – both military and civilian – are defending it as a much-needed breathing space, which can help them regain their foothold in the Swat valley.
Regardless of to what extent does this “tactical move” both by the military and the militants assuage the people at large, it needs to be seen in the context of the long-drawn military operation, its impact on the psyche of the security forces engaged in Swat and its ramifications for the state of Pakistan. Let us take Swat first; until opting for the deal, the army had taken in 1,470 casualties, lost territory to the militants, most politicians had disappeared from Swat, and thereby leaving residents at the mercy of the Tehreeke Taliban Swat – a socio-political hemorrhage that the state took since November 2007, manifest in the displacement of more than half a million people from Swat and its surroundings.
Already in late January, indications had emerged that the security establishment is contemplating involving Sufi Mohammad for exploring peace prospects. That the political elite i.e. elected representatives would also have to lead from the front by falling behind the army was also a logical expectation from the army leadership.
Hence the deal and now the ball finds itself in the court of the provincial government, which apparently reluctantly embraced Sufi and eventually Fazlullah and Muslim Khan, both of whom had publicly vowed to target the Pakistan Army. By abducting and briefly holding Khushal Khan, the district coordination officer of Swat, the Taliban also signalled as to who would be calling the shots in the region in the near future. Most probably, most administrative machinery including the police would remain mindful of the Taliban, while discharging their duties.
Both sides have for the time being shelved their demands; Taliban have not made the army pullout, release of all prisoners, and a general amnesty for all militants as a precondition for holding fire. The government and the military, while conceding on the demand for the Islamic courts, has not pressed the “arms surrender” as a precondition for talks. So, the general vibes are all positive – for the time being at least.
Yet, the move is certainly not about Swat alone. Neither is the “Shoorae Ittehadi Mujahideen” a coincidence. It seems to be part of a new strategy by the Taliban forces operating on the Pakistani territory as well as by the security establishment. The strategy – dubbed as indigenous response to the militants – aims at “taking the heat off the army.”
Even last year in summer, Gul Bahadur and Mulla Nazir had attempted to win over Baitullah Mehsud for such an alliance. Mehsud attended the first meeting but later stayed away from the consequent meetings, which led to the creation of “Maqami Tehreeke Taliban” comprising the outfits led by Bahadur and Nazir, who controls almost all swaths of the Wana valley, predominantly inhabited by Ahmedzai Wazirs.
Baitullah’s reluctance practically pushed him into isolation – as far as contacts with the FATA-based Taliban forces was concerned. But it seems that, ahead of the impending surge in the US forces in Afghanistan – where there numbers are likely to swell to almost 50,000 by summer – Pakistani Taliban decided to close ranks. Khaleefa Siraj Haqqani, one of the sons of Afghan Jihadi veteran Jalaluddin Haqqani – apparently succeeded in getting Baitullah Mehsud on board.
Those familiar with the tribal affairs believe that the Haqqani clan played the key role in bringing Nazir and Mehsud together, ahead of their plans for Afghanistan. Both revere Mulla Omar, whom the Haqqanis hold in high esteem as their spiritual mentor.
The move is likely to bring Baitullah out of isolation. Secondly, it enlarges his areas of operation, which will now extend to North Waziristan and all through South Waziristan. The Ittehadi Shoora, however, will remain restricted to the Waziristan region, which also explains that its focus and the area of operations would remain Afghanistan.
“If Obama, Karzai and Zardari can stand united, why can’t the Taliban brothers get together,” so read the pamphlet released after the three Taliban leaders formally agreed on the alliance, which came about some five days after the first drone attack on a village in the Kurram Agency. At least five foreigners were among those killed off the missile fired from the drone – the MQ9 Reaper. This also underscored that the relatively “shrinking space inside Waziristan because of the close satellite-based electronic surveillance by the Americans,” the Taliban are now fanning out to other areas for shelter and training.
The alliance also fits into the preferred options of the Pakistani establishment; we are not bothered as long as the militants conduct their operations outside the Pakistani territory.
For quite sometime there has been loud thinking among the top echelons of the establishment that why should Pakistani forces antagonize those militants who pose no direct threat to them.
By lapping up a strategy, that was scripted in Washington by the combine of Bush-Cheney-Gates, and executed by Gen Pervez Musharraf, the Pakistani establishment ended up annoying the likes of Mehsud and Haqqani, who eventually turned their guns against Pakistani security forces to avenge deaths of their colleagues and common FATA residents. The antagonisation took place because the US establishment pressed Pakistan to go after those elements who they said were attacking the Afghan-American armies and hence destabilising Afghanistan.
Under Gen Kayani, the nucleus of the Pakistani armed forces would probably also find the new realignments in the tribal areas as well as the much-needed respite ever since the army and paramilitary forces got embroiled in the tribal areas as a consequence of the partnership in the global war against terrorism. A quasi cohabitation (don’t bother each other) with militant groups, whom the armed forces have been chasing for over seven years, is not likely to be taken in positively by most in and outside the country. But the question facing Pakistan and its institutions today is as to what extent can it oblige the United States and allies and thereby jeopardize its own internal peace – as has been the case since the deployment and operations of the armed forces began in December 2001.
Deals in Swat and latest developments in FATA are fraught with risks of ascendancy in the militancy. Success in Swat can encourage them to ask for more. But herein lies the real test of the Pakistani civilian and military establishment; is it really using Swat and other arrangements as an opportunity to regain lost influence and authority? Does it have a strategy to counter the forces of obscurantism through a swift and radical reform in the state’s administrative structures to ensure socio-economic and political justice? If it is not, then the Taliban spirit enshrined in the Swat deal would project itself elsewhere as well.