Aftab Sherpao: Pakistan's Policy on Taliban Failing

Ex-Pakistani Official Says Policy on Taliban Is Failing
By JANE PERLEZ, New York Times, January 27, 2008

SHERPAO, Pakistan — In the walled courtyard of the modest whitewashed mosque, a suicide bomber worked his way into in the middle of a packed congregation and unleashed his explosives during prayers last month, killing 53 villagers and wounding 143 others.

The target of the attack, the former interior minister, Aftab Khan Sherpao (pronounced Share-POW), whose ancestral village sits at the foothills of the tribal region where the Taliban and their partners in Al Qaeda roam largely unfettered, was left unscathed.

But the second attack in eight months on Mr. Sherpao, 64, who was until recently his nation’s most senior law enforcement official, left him more frustrated and more outspoken about the failure of the government to respond aggressively to the rapidly spreading Taliban insurgency that is seeking to destabilize Pakistan.

The weakness of the Pakistani police and the army response to determined and religiously motivated Taliban fighters was allowing the insurgency to get stronger day by day, he said.

“The police are scared,” Mr. Sherpao said. “They don’t want to get involved.” The Frontier Corps, a paramilitary force that could help in tracking down leads on suicide bombers, was “too stressed, fighting all over,” he said. The Pakistan Army has forces in the tribal areas where the militants have built their sanctuaries but the soldiers have remained in their headquarters. “They are not moving around,” he said. “That’s their strategy.”

Last Sunday, another attack near his village illustrated the gravity of the quickly deteriorating situation, compounded by the fact that the militants were able to get away with their attacks unpunished, he said.

Mr. Sherpao said he was awakened by a telephone caller who said that a senior official of the Intelligence Bureau, one of Pakistan’s most powerful intelligence agencies, had just been assassinated as he walked to the mosque in his village near Charsadda, where Mr. Sherpao had been the target of a suicide bomber last April.

“The Taliban came in two vehicles,” Mr. Sherpao said. “They said to the intelligence officer, ‘Are you so and so?’ When he said ‘Yes,’ they shot him dead.”

The failure to investigate aggressively, Mr. Sherpao said, had emboldened the insurgents who interpret the government’s inaction as an inability to or an unwillingness to investigate.

A report released this month by the Pak Institute for Peace Studies, a nongovernmental research center based in Lahore, said suicide bombings in Pakistan had soared to 60 last year from 6 in 2006.

A document from the Interior Ministry last July warned the government of President Pervez Musharraf that the Taliban were spreading so fast that “swift and decisive action,” was needed to prevent the insurgency from engulfing the rest of the country.

Six months later, the picture was “very bleak,” Mr. Sherpao said. “It has increased, with no checks anywhere,” he said of the insurgency.

The recommendations in the Interior Ministry document for pushing back the militants — including enhancing local law enforcement and mobilizing public opinion — had not been followed, he said.

Mr. Sherpao, who comes from the Pashtun ethnic group that dominates the North-West Frontier Province and is the same ethnic group of the Taliban he wants to defeat, appeared depressed and uncertain that the government could prevail.

In the North-West Frontier Province, there was a risk of “total Talibanization,” he said.

Military and police actions were not the only factors necessary to turn around the situation, he said, adding that moderate political forces need to join hands.

“You need focused efforts and a clear perception of what you want to do,” he said. “Unless you involve the political parties, civil society, religious leaders, this is not going to make any headway.”

The Taliban, he said, were able to outmaneuver the government because they were well financed, were skilled at propaganda, and were even paying political candidates opposed to them in the tribal areas to keep them from participating in elections.

This grim assessment by Mr. Sherpao, who is one of Pakistan’s best-known politicians, comes as senior officials in Washington have said they are increasingly concerned about the growing efforts by the Taliban and Al Qaeda to destabilize the government.

The Bush administration has discussed in recent weeks sending more military trainers to assist the Pakistan Army in counterinsurgency tactics. The administration is also debating whether to strengthen covert operations by the Central Intelligence Agency.

The leader of United States Central Command, Adm. William J. Fallon, met the new chief of the Pakistan Army, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, during a visit to Islamabad last week to discuss proposals by the administration.

In most cases, Mr. Sherpao said, the police have had a boilerplate approach to solving the suicide bombings. They have blamed them on Baitullah Mehsud, the leader of a new association of Taliban militia in the tribal areas, who has been cited by Washington as having links to Al Qaeda, and left it at that, Mr. Sherpao said. “Not one suicide bombing has been resolved,” he said. “They just link it to Baitullah Mehsud, and that’s all.”

The director of the C.I.A., Gen. Michael V. Hayden, said last week that he believed terror networks directed by Mr. Mehsud were responsible for the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, the opposition leader and former prime minister of Pakistan.

In a measure of the fast moving strength of the jihadists, Mr. Sherpao said the militants’ bases were no longer confined to North and South Waziristan, two districts inside the tribal area that have long been considered training grounds for suicide bombers.

The militants were now spread across the entire tribal region, including the district of Mohmand, which abuts the village of Sherpao and is close to Peshawar, the capital of the North-West Frontier Province, he said.

Three months ago, Mohmand was free of the Taliban, Mr. Sherpao said. Now, he said, the district was being used as a base to strike at the area around his village, and the bigger town of Charsadda where Mr. Sherpao survived a suicide bomb attack at a political rally last April.

In Swat, a scenic area outside of the tribal areas to the north, the Pakistan Army has been fighting the Taliban the last several months. The insurgents had displayed tactical skill, Mr. Sherpao said, by refusing to fight as a group, and instead had blended into the civilian population.

In an interview in the family compound, Mr. Sherpao’s son, Sikander, 31, who is a member of the provincial assembly of the North-West Frontier Province, said the Taliban had expanded easily in the Mohmand district adjacent to their village because there were was no resistance from the authorities there. The Taliban then proceeded to give the local population a sense of quick justice that was denied them by the weak government.

“About four months ago, the Taliban said they were going to arrest the thieves and the gamblers in Mohmand,” said Sikander Sherpao, who holds a business degree from Drake University in Des Moines, and was injured in the suicide attack at the mosque. “When you let them do that, the Taliban feel they have a free hand.”

At the same time, he said, the Taliban had attracted local criminals into their ranks. “I know a lot of car thieves who are now Taliban emirs,” he said.

The Taliban were financing their activities with profits from the duty-free car trade with Afghanistan, and by raiding trailers carrying supplies by road for the United States military in Afghanistan, he said.

Taliban warlords could soon dominate as the North-West Frontier Province disintegrated into chaos, Sikander Sherpao said. “Doomsday scenarios are being discussed, especially the way things have gone in the last three to four months,” he said.

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