Next stop Islamabad?

VIEW: Next stop Islamabad — Zahid Hussain
Daily Times, June 29, 2008

The massacre of 22 rival tribesmen by Baitullah Mehsud’s Taliban fighters in Jandola, close to the Frontier Corps headquarters, and attacks on girls schools in the Swat Valley indicate the impunity with which the militants are operating

Peshawar, capital of the North West Frontier Province, lies besieged by the advancing Taliban who have been steadily wresting legal and territorial controls from a state unable to battle them with resolve. Islamic militants now control the region’s main arteries and can cut off communications at will.

Organised under the banner of Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan, the militants are now challenging the writ of the state not only in the lawless tribal belt but have also established their parallel rule in large swaths of NWFP’s settled areas.

They are now active in many cities, including Dera Ismail Khan, Nowshera, Mardan, Kohat and the Swat Valley and pose a direct challenge to provincial authorities. In fact, political management of the province, already difficult, will become impossible if large pockets of militancy continue to grow.

The advance has been helped by paralysis in the government and the absence of a comprehensive counter-insurgency strategy. Fragmentation of power has caused a complete breakdown in the decision-making process, resulting in huge confusion.

Early this week Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani approved a plan for a fresh military operation in the tribal and settled areas and authorised the army chief to take a final decision on how and when to take action.

“The chief of army staff will be the principal for application of the military effort,” said an official statement issued after a meeting of top civil and military leaders. In simple words it is left to the military leadership to decide the line of action.

This is an admission of its own ineptitude by the civilian government. It refuses to take ownership of the anti-terrorism policy. It is around three months since the PPP-led coalition government came to power, but it has failed to give a clear policy direction on the issue which presents the most serious threat to Pakistan’s national security — indeed, threatens its very survival. Instead the government is now completely depending on the military to salvage the situation.

What the newly elected civilian leadership has failed to understand is that counter-insurgency is too important an issue to be left entirely to the military. No one can deny the need for complete harmony between the civilian government and the military for countering terrorism effectively. But the leadership has to come from the elected representatives of the people.

Terrorism cannot be defeated by military means alone. The battle has to be fought on political and ideological fronts as well. A major reason for the rise of militancy has been the weakening of the state. There is no cohesion on what terrorism is and how it must be fought even among the four coalition partners. The PPP and the PMLN hold completely divergent views on how to deal with the problem. No one is in charge here.

The administration has been paralysed while the militants are knocking on the doors of Peshawar, just two hours drive from Islamabad. The so-called peace negotiations with the militants in South Waziristan and the accord in Swat have failed to deliver peace.

The massacre of 22 rival tribesmen by Baitullah Mehsud’s Taliban fighters in Jandola, close to the Frontier Corps headquarters, and attacks on girls schools in the Swat Valley indicate the impunity with which the militants are operating. Not that the Taliban are very strong; more accurately it is the collapse of law enforcement that has allowed them the space. Weakened and demoralised law enforcement agencies have emboldened the militants.

The lack of will among the police is obvious. Police stations in the outskirts of Peshawar have long given up night patrolling after the killing of several officers in militant attacks. Some reports suggest senior police officers refused to raid a terrorist hideout in Peshawar’s Hayatabad district a part of which is located in the Khyber tribal agency.

The government’s attempts to cut deals have also played to the Taliban’s advantage. The authorities have been trying to negotiate a controversial agreement with Baitullah Mehsud which is aimed at containing the militants within the region. Last month the provincial government, led by the Awami National Party, signed a peace deal with militants in the Swat Valley — a key battleground for the past 18 months.

Thousands of militants had taken control of the Valley last year, prompting a military operation that eventually drove out the insurgents. They are now back, despite the accord. Under the agreement, the government released dozens of militants captured during the military operation, many of them criminals.

The government claimed that the accord would bring peace to the area, but it appears only to have strengthened the militants. There is little sign the militants will lay down arms, as the deal requires. Many officials are sceptical about the credibility and efficacy of such agreements. They worry that the deals could provide breathing room for the militants to regroup.

Peace deals cannot work until the writ of the government is established. That is not happening. As the militants encircle Peshawar, there is fear that their next stop would be Islamabad.

Zahid Hussain is the Pakistan correspondent for the Times of London, the Wall Street Journal, and Newsweek. He is also the political correspondent for the Karachi-based monthly Newsline and the author of Frontline Pakistan: The Struggle with Militant Islam.

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