Saturday, September 08, 2007

'Soldiers of Misfortune' in Pakistan's Tribal Area

Picture from BBC: A Pakistani shopkeeper displays an M-16 and other guns in the Darra Adamkhel tribal area near the border with Afghanistan.

Soldiers of misfortune By Babar Sattar
The News, September 8, 2007

This year probably saw the most lacklustre Defence Day celebrations in Pakistan's recent history. It came within days of the deadly bombings in Rawalpindi that claimed 29 lives. Meanwhile almost 300 soldiers are being held hostage by tribal insurgents in Waziristan. With every passing day the number of servicemen being killed in the ill-conceived military operation being carried out in the NWFP is rising. What kind of war is Pakistan army fighting against insurgents in the tribal areas and is it distinguishable from America's war on terror? Is this military operation not creating a larger national security crisis for the country by pitting Pakistanis against Pakistanis and turning our urban centres into battlegrounds? Who is keeping count of the casualties of our soldiers and is such loss acceptable? Can territories be ruled by force once the local population turns hostile?

In the post-9/11 world, the Taliban are almost always bunched together with Al Qaeda. While the Taliban can be criticised for introducing an obscurantist and brutal regime in Afghanistan, they were not the architects of 9/11. They did provide sanctuary to Al Qaeda and refused to hand over its leadership to the US, but in doing so they were only imitating their predictable cultural response to threats of violence. This is not meant to be justification for the Taliban, their ideology and activities, but only to point out that they must be distinguished from Al Qaeda. Even if misguided, Taliban are sons of the soil and their ambition is not geo-strategic but limited to preserving control over their territory and culture. Likewise, notwithstanding their rhetoric, the tribal insurgents in Pakistan are not waging a jihad to conquer the US but only against foreign invasion. Unfortunately, Pakistan army is now seen as the agent of the foreign invaders making it the prime target in its own country.

The US-led NATO forces fighting in Afghanistan and their sponsors in the west wish to believe that an overwhelming majority of Afghans welcome their presence and see them as agents of the much desired change. It is true that the Afghans crave change, but one that is homegrown and not imposed from abroad. With all its pro-9/11 bravado, the US and the West is turning a blind eye to the history of this region and its acute xenophobia. The other lesson from history is that the west has no appetite for embracing military casualties in foreign lands in pursuit of lofty moral objectives such as promoting democracy and human rights. As casualties rise and the realisation of military objectives in Afghanistan becomes a forlorn hope, NATO will take no time to pull out of the country leaving Afghans to their own devices. The Musharraf regime is also indulging in the similar folly by fighting locals on its side of the border, with the exception that while the west has a worse case exit strategy to leave the region, Pakistan has none.

The strategic thinking behind Pakistan army's operation in the tribal areas is unclear. Other than proving that Pakistan is committed to providing unequivocal support to the US war on terror even at the expense of its own security interests, what are the goals of this operation, what are the measures of success and what is the probability of victory? Do the people of Pakistan support this operation? Is the army itself convinced of its rational? For psychological and military reasons, an army needs a well-defined and hated enemy to wage a war. And there is none in the tribal areas. There is a lot of anger against suicide bombers indiscriminately killing civilians in the cities and armed militants killing Pakistani soldiers in the tribal areas. But there is an equal amount of resentment against military operation against Pakistanis and the avoidable loss of life such as that in Bajaur and elsewhere.

From a psychological perspective, the insurgents are viewed by many in the army as well in Pakistan more generally as misguided but not evil. Being Pakistanis and also allies of the military in the pre-9/11 world, they do not fall squarely within the definition of the enemy. From a military strategy perspective, it is impossible to wage a war where one cannot identify the enemy. Thus in the tribal areas it only becomes apparent who the enemy really is once they shoot at you. The capture of 300 soldiers in Waziristan illustrates the conundrum Pakistan has got itself into. Reportedly not a bullet was fired or any resistance put up by the soldiers while being taken hostage by the insurgents. Was a similar response of soldiers conceivable if this was a battle between India and Pakistan for example? In attempting to recover its men, the army is engaged in negotiations with tribal elders and is reportedly not planning a military offensive against the 'enemy'. This highlights the constraints any army is confronted with in fighting fellow citizens.

The military operation in the tribal areas is jeopardising Pakistan's security interests. On the one hand it is demoralising the army, undermining its credibility as an effective fighting machine and causing loss of precious lives of soldiers. On the other, it is alienating the tribes in the frontier, turning our cities into battle grounds, causing unnecessary loss of civilian lives in the tribal areas and the cities and threatening to wipe out the sensible centre of Pakistan by creating more ideological polarisation within the society. It does not bode well for the health of a nation when the protectors of its frontiers become the primary targets of security threats from within the country. It is even more disconcerting when members of a society feel no qualms about using fellow civilians as legitimate military targets to make political and ideological statements. Such a society needs to heal and rehabilitate and that process can only begin once violence is shunned as policy instrument.

As a first step Pakistan needs to set its priorities straight. In unconditionally supporting the war on terror as well as the US strategy in fighting that war, there is much more at stake for Pakistan than losing generous military assistance and an opportunity to win accolades. The Musharraf regime's support for an unpopular war, apart from igniting fires of hate against the US, has created a security situation within the country that is out of control and is threatening to tear apart our social fabric. Instead of focusing on assisting the US in its war all over the world, we need to focus on our differences within. It is irresponsible to designate the Pakistan army as foot soldiers in a US war and it is both immoral and counterproductive to use state violence as the preferred means to negotiate with embittered sections of the society.

Equally importantly we need to take responsibility for creation of our homegrown fanatics. While the west can afford to switch gears and re-characterise the revered 'mujahideen' of yesterday as terrorists of the post-9/11 world, such a change of vocabulary has not resulted in an automatic change of perception within Pakistan. We thus need to appreciate and address the unintended consequences of such transformation and also revisit the linkages created between our security apparatus, religious parties and the jihadi organisations. The authors of our national security policy still do not seem to comprehend that the project of directing religious zeal of non-commissioned personnel into realising the state's strategic objectives is fundamentally misconceived. The insurgency in the tribal areas led partly by the erstwhile non-commissioned military allies of our security apparatus is not a case of mismanagement of our intelligence assets, but proof that ideological zealotry has a tendency to spring out of control and integrating it within the state's strategic doctrine is inherently dangerous.

The writer is a lawyer based in Islamabad. He is a Rhodes Scholar and has an LL.M from Harvard Law School. Email:

By Ahmed Rashid, BBC - September 6, 2007

Ahmed Rashid, guest journalist and writer on Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia, reflects on mounting political drama and militancy in Pakistan.

Pakistan's worst ever political crisis that has divided the nation also appears to be having a dramatic impact on the morale of Pakistani troops on the Afghan-Pakistan border who are engaged in the "war on terror" and fighting the Taleban.

Talebanisation along Pakistan's border regions has escalated even more rapidly since the political crisis began.

As people flee their villages to escape armed extremists, the state has been unable to protect the population and is rapidly losing credibility and authority.

Moreover, the army's insistence that a pro-Taleban Islamic party once again be part of any future government that may emerge after expected general elections will only lead to a further lessening of state control, an increase in the pace of Talebanisation and further divisions in the nation.

'Terrorism Central'

The surrender of an estimated 280 soldiers, including a colonel and nine other officers, on 30 August in South Waziristan to just a few score Taleban fighters who blocked their supply convoy on the road to the main town of Wana shocked the nation.

The Pakistani Taleban, ostensibly belonging to the group led by Baitullah Mahsud, persuaded the troops to surrender without firing a single shot. The group comprised more than a dozen mid-ranking officers, including a colonel.

The militants then split the soldiers into groups and took them into the high mountains as hostages - much as the Afghan Taleban did six weeks earlier near Ghazni to a group of 23 South Koreans who were subsequently freed.

A jirga of tribal elders who met the Pakistani Taleban for two days returned empty handed. The Taleban demanded the release of 10 of their prisoners held by the government and insisted upon all troops leaving the Federally-Administered Tribal Area or Fata, which comprises the seven tribal agencies.

After the hostage-taking, the government arrested 100 Mahsud tribesmen - but was quickly forced to free them in order to appease the militants.

The army attempted to cover up the disaster by making conflicting statements, none of which appeared logical and all of which were contradicted by the militants and local tribal elders.

The government has banned all journalists from the region since 2004 so real information is sparse.

In case anyone doubted the militants' intentions, 10 Frontier Corps paramilitary soldiers and a major were kidnapped in Fata's Mohmand agency on 1 September, while two deadly suicide bombings killed several soldiers in Bajaur agency on the same day.

After a US intelligence estimate in mid-July that South and North Waziristan had become Terrorism Central and were the headquarters for al-Qaeda and the Taleban, President Pervez Musharraf sent 20,000 troops into the region breaking a ceasefire and a troop withdrawal treaty agreement the army had signed with the Pakistani Taleban in 2005.

Widespread anger

The Pakistani Taleban are now demanding the army returns to the status quo.

But that is impossible with the Americans breathing down Gen Musharraf's neck and threatening to attack al-Qaeda hideouts in Fata if the army does not move first. However, that is looking increasingly difficult.

Many of the army and Frontier Corp personnel serving in Fata are Pashtuns, the ethnic group that lives on both sides of the border and from which the Taleban in both countries originate. Pakistani Pashtun soldiers are now loathe to fire upon their fellow Pashtuns.

The last time the army attacked Fata in 2004 more than 700 soldiers were killed and dozens of Pashtun soldiers and Frontier Corp men deserted, while some army helicopter pilots refused to bomb their own fellow citizens. As a result, Gen Musharraf was forced to do a deal with the militants that took the troops out of Fata - much to the chagrin of the American forces based in Afghanistan.

This time the situation is much more serious.

Apart from the Taleban there is widespread public anger against the army which could make the loss of morale amongst the troops much more serious. People have lost faith in the political system and in the army's attempts to concoct a new one.

In such a political vacuum it is only natural that extremism should grow and the Pakistani Taleban face only a modicum of resistance from the military.
Gen Musharraf has failed to convince the general public that the struggle against extremism is not just President Bush's war, but a struggle that all fair-minded Pakistanis must wage.

In the meantime, the army is insisting that Maulana Fazlur Rehman, who leads the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam (JUI), be part of any future government, whether it is led by Benazir Bhutto or the ruling Pakistan Muslim League.

The JUI has been the mainstay for the revival of the Taleban in both Pakistan and Afghanistan.

With supervision from Pakistan's intelligence services, thousands of JUI-run madrassas in Balochistan and North West Frontier Province have provided shelter to tens of thousands of extremists from both sides of the border.

Wider tragedy

As long as the JUI is a part of any future Pakistani government it is impossible to imagine how that government will be able to move against the Taleban.

Thus, by insisting that the JUI does become part of a future government, the army appears to be directly boosting the fortunes of the Afghan Taleban, even as Pakistani Taleban kidnap or kill Pakistani troops.

This is only part of a wider tragedy that is a result of eight years of military rule when Gen Musharraf appeared to be running with the hares and hunting with the hounds - following a deeply contradictory policy course that has now caught up with him and helped plunge the country into its present chaos.

Ahmed Rashid is a Pakistani journalist based in Lahore. He is the author of three books including Taliban and, most recently, Jihad. He has covered Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia for the past 25 years and also writes for the Far Eastern Economic Review, the Daily Telegraph and The Wall Street Journal.

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