Kidnappings and suicide attacks shake morale of Pakistan's armed forceJeremy Page and Zahid Hussain: The Times: September 20, 2007
Pakistan’s army has long prided itself on its traditions of duty and discipline, as well as its fighting skills, enhanced by decades of military aid from the Americans.
But the army’s morale, loyalty and capability are now being seriously questioned after a spate of soldiers’ abductions and increasingly bold attacks on troops fighting Taleban and al-Qaeda militants.
The latest embarrassment came yesterday when militants kidnapped seven soldiers from their checkpoint in the tribal area of North Waziristan, which borders Afghanistan.
The previous day, Pakistani officials recovered the bodies of 15 commandos killed by militants in the same area, taking the army’s death toll to more than 200 in the last ten weeks.
Authorities are still trying to secure the release of another 250 soldiers, including nine officers, who were kidnapped three weeks ago in South Waziristan without even firing a shot. The incident raised fears that the Army has been infiltrated by militants.
Military officials now admit that the militants have almost totally overrun North and South Waziristan, the two largest of Pakistan’s seven semi-autonomous tribal regions. And they fear that the militants’ influence is spreading into neighbouring North West Frontier Province, where radical Mullahs are forming armed militias and enforcing strict Sharia. “Militants are gaining strength in the region,” one army official told The Times.
General Pervez Musharraf, the Pakistani President and army chief, has deployed about 90,000 troops to areas on the border with Afghanistan since allying himself with the United States after the 9/11 attacks.
But even with an estimated $10 billion (£5 million) in aid from the US, he has failed to subdue the tribal areas that are sheltering Taleban and al-Qaeda militants, possibly including Osama bin Laden. Last year, after heavy casualties on both sides, he signed a controversial peace deal with tribal leaders in Waziristan, angering Western military commanders.
The deal soon unravelled, however, and fighting rapidly intensified this year after commandos stormed the radical Red Mosque in Islamabad in July, killing at least 100 militants and students holed up inside.
In private, some senior officers now blame General Musharraf for being distracted by a political crisis over his plans to be reelected as President next month, while still serving as army chief. Others blame the United States and Britain for pressing him to use the army against his own people in an attempt to stop the Taleban and al-Qaeda from regrouping and crossing the Afghan border.
“When we first went in we were doing a pretty good job, but then the goalposts kept changing and we got into mission creep,” one serving general said.
“If this mission creep continues, this could become like Iraq. The troops are overstretched. Plus they’re being asked to shoot their own people. It’s very demoralising.” One of the army’s greatest concerns is that soldiers and paramilitary police recruited from the ethnic Pashtun tribes that span the Afghan border are reluctant to fight their own kind.
The border is mostly guarded by the Frontier Corps, which is part of the Interior Ministry, is recruited locally and is less well trained and equipped than the army.
Many of those kidnapped and killed in recent weeks are from the Frontier Corps, which has also been demoralised by a fatwa that troops who die fighting the militants should not receive Islamic funerals.
But the group of 250 soldiers who surrendered without resistance last month were mostly from the army – and included senior officers.
“The recent abject surrender of the soldiers to the militants is a huge embarrassment for the army, which prides itself on its professional competence and high level of combat alertness,” says Lieutenant-General (Retd) Talat Masood, a former Defence Secretary.
Another concern is that militants have started to penetrate the army itself. Last week, a suicide bomber blew himself up inside the mess of an elite antiterrorist commando force, killing at least 20 soldiers.
This followed the bombing of a military bus carrying intelligence agents close to the army’s headquarters. Junior army personnel have been detained for questioning.
September 11 Seventeen die, including a soldier, when a suicide bomber in northwest Pakistan blows himself up in a minibus
August 24 Seven soldiers die and eleven are injured when two suicide bombers strike a military convoy in North Waziristan
July 20 Four people, two of them civilians, are killed when a suicide car bomber hits a checkpoint in North Waziristan, three days after three soldiers died in a similar blast at a nearby checkpoint
July 14 At least 24 security personnel killed and 27 injured when a car laden with explosives is driven into convoy near Miranshah, the capital of North Waziristan
July 4 Eleven people, including six soldiers and a child, die in a suicide attack on a convoy of troops in North Waziristan
January 22 Five are killed when a suicide car bomber hits a military convoy, the first such attack since a ceasefire between the Government and Taleban-backed militants in September 2006
Sources: South Asia Intelligence Review; agencies