Military Action in Kyber Agency (FATA)

Editorial: Action in Khyber, reaction in FATA
Editorial, June 30, 2008

Paramilitary forces, whose personnel were freely held for ransom by warlord Mangal Bagh, have gone into the Khyber Agency in the neighbourhood of Peshawar and destroyed the warlord’s house and made his “hundred-thousand strong” army flee from its stronghold. What started three years ago and swelled into a near autonomous state is finally being challenged by the state of Pakistan. It will be adjudged to be a late operation by historians and blame will be apportioned to President Pervez Musharraf during whose watch the problem arose and the civilian rulers of the day who woke up late.

Warlord Mangal Bagh has fled to Tirah, the high altitude valley that Pakistan once proudly called a tribal no-man’s land. He became the ruler of Khyber after killing those who resisted him. He got his income by imposing heavy fines on the local inhabitants for petty neglect of religious pieties and began recruiting his army. The syndrome that surfaced in Khyber is the same as that which appeared in South Waziristan and Swat: intimidation followed by “empowerment” of those abandoned by the state of Pakistan as soldiers and suicide-bombers of “Islam”.

When his “government” became too big for Khyber’s capacity to generate revenues to pay for it, Mangal Bagh descended on Peshawar, cherry-picking rich parties in borderline Hayatabad for extortion, then threatening the rich of Peshawar into paying him big cash. The snowballing of his business of death gave him the charisma he needed. As he killed innocent people in the Agency, people owing allegiance to his “Islamic order” increased by the day in the NWFP and in other parts of the country. He began courting the TV channels when he saw that the rest of Pakistan too was ready for the plucking.

The whole thing was tiresomely old hat. A hundred years ago a water-carrier by the name of Batcha Saqao appeared in Afghanistan, holding aloft the banner of “Islam”, and actually toppled the throne in Kabul to establish his rule there. The only difference today is that in Pakistan, 20 years of jihad, allowed by the state itself, has softened it for adventurists. The sacrifice made by Pakistan for jihad was not spiritual but political: an unwise abdication from its internal sovereignty. The Jihad brought Al Qaeda to Pakistan as the generals foolishly sought “strategic depth” in Afghanistan.

The warlords of the Tribal Areas gain sustenance from the umbrella control of Al Qaeda which can supplement the income of anyone who has exhausted his capacity to live off the retreating authority of the state and the helplessness of the citizens abandoned by the state. According to one Islamabad observer, the who’s who of Al Qaeda surrogates of the state can be listed like this: “South Waziristan now belongs to Baitullah Mehsud; Maulvi Faqir Muhammad controls Bajaur; Mangal Bagh and Haji Namdar rule Khyber; Commander Umar Khalid is the boss of Mohmand”.

How much has the state of Pakistan retreated since 2001 and what is the extent of the terrain the Pakistan army now has to win back? In all, 20,000 square kilometres. We have to leave out Balochistan for now or we will stray from the topic in hand. There are other more lethal “losses” to consider, however. What all these Al Qaeda warlords — who call themselves the Taliban — know may not be a part of our consciousness. But they know that they have conquered the minds of many Pakistanis through their methods of intimidation.

If there is action in Khyber, there is bound to be predictable reaction from Al Qaeda too. This has come from Baitullah Mehsud. He has suspended all peace talks with the army and declared that he will attack Sindh and Punjab. The opposition politicians will cringe. They will have to decide whether to support the government in this action or hang on to the reprieve they won earlier this year by dismissing the war in the Tribal Areas as “not our war” and by focusing on the lawyers’ movement where they even swore to lay down their lives for the sake of “democracy” in Pakistan.

Under the circumstances, the response of different groups of people will be important. Will the politicians and the TV channels disapprove of the military operation and expect that when Baitullah Mehsud strikes in Punjab he will let them off the hook because of their “neutrality”? Will the basis of this disapproval be their interpretation of the operation that the Americans have imposed another war on Pakistan and the PPP government has succumbed to it and is now guilty of killing innocent people? If so, that would be a tragedy of the highest order.

The army knows the pattern from its memory of the Lal Masjid Operation last year. First there is a public demand for “doing something” against a public flouting of state authority, then there is the moral reneging on it, then the operation is made grounds for removing the government in power. The army this time has clearly got a public fiat from the government to launch the operation. If we don’t want Pakistan to go down, we should fully support the operation all the way. *

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