Are we Losing the War against Militancy?

Are we Losing the War against Militancy?
Zahid Hussain, Newsline, Karachi, July 2008

For almost two days, Jandola - a dusty small town on the main road into South Waziristan - was at the mercy of armed followers of Baitullah Mehsud. They pulled out members of rival tribes from their homes and executed them after a summary trial. It all happened close to the Frontier Corps headquarters, but no one dared to challenge the marauders. Thirty seven people had been killed before the army arrived in the town. Organised under the banner of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, the militants led by Mehsud have extended their influence into a large swathe of NWFP, seeking to enforce a Taliban-style Islamic rule.

A couple of days later, the long-haired, bearded followers of another militant commander, Mangal Bagh, raided a residential quarter inside a large government hospital in Peshawar, kidnapped 16 members of the Christian community and took them to the Khyber agency. The local administration secured their release a few hours later. But the incident heightened insecurity among non-Muslims.

Mangal Bagh, who had worked as a bus cleaner before turning to militancy, has hundreds of heavily armed men organised under the banner of Lashkar-e-Islam. The group has placed Peshawar virtually under siege for the past several months. It controlled the key arterial roads and was in a position to cut off communications at will.

That same week, supporters of Mullah Fazlullah blew up a hotel at Malam Jabba, the country's only ski resort, and burnt down more than one dozen girls' schools in Swat valley. Also known as Mullah Radio for his fiery speeches on FM radio, Fazlullah has been leading an insurgency in the area, prompting a military action last year that killed hundreds of people. His supporters, who were pushed into hiding in the mountains were back after a peace deal with the provincial government.

These incidents over the last one month clearly indicate the impunity with which the militants have been operating in Northern Pakistan. Overrunning the lawless tribal belt, the militants have virtually established their parallel authority in large parts 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 the provincial authorities. In fact, political management of the province, already difficult, will become impossible if large pockets of militancy continue to grow. People are being publicly executed and beheaded. Girls' schools are being burnt down and video shops are attacked by Islamic vigilantes. According to Khalid Aziz, a former chief secretary of the province, some districts in the NWFP are beginning to resemble the loosely administered agencies of FATA.

Now Peshawar lies besieged by the advancing Taliban, who have been steadily wresting legal and territorial control from a state unable to battle them with resolve. "Peshawar's residents wonder how long it will be before this country becomes another Somalia," says Khalid Aziz.

Have we lost the war against Islamic militancy? Not yet, but it may happen soon if we fail to act now.

The rise of the Pakistani Taliban has not happened overnight. The war in Afghanistan has spilled over into Pakistan's borderland with huge consequences. Pakistani forces entered FATA in 2003 and since then the insurgency has grown in strength. Al-Qaeda and Taliban fleeing from Afghanistan after the occupation of the country by the US-led coalition forces, turned the region into their base. Previous military operations did little to improve the situation; instead they further fueled militancy. A new crop of Pakistani Taliban emerged on the scene who sought to fill the vacuum created by the collapse of the administrative system in FATA as a result of the military campaigns.

In December 2005, the militants in Miramshah in North Waziristan, who fashioned themselves on the legacy of the ousted Taliban regime in Afghanistan, killed some two dozen alleged criminals and left their bodies hanging for days in the centre of the town. The corpses were later tied to vehicles and dragged through the streets in a savage show of medieval barbarism. It was the beginning of the Pakistani Taliban movement which swept other parts of the NWFP.

Although North Waziristan has been the main base for Al-Qaeda backed militants for a long time and a stronghold of religious extremists, this incident was the first sign of Taliban-like rule. The militants gained popularity by pretending to fight crime. They created an environment of fear when they executed so-called bandits and left the bodies hanging in the open, sending out a message of terror.

Pakistani military and civil authorities looked the other way and did nothing to stop the militants from carrying out public executions and dispensing their brutal brand of punishment to those who defied them. The administration was under clear instructions not to impede the movements of the local Taliban who remained unchecked and continued to consolidate their position in the area. The emergence of the local Taliban movement was ominous as Pakistan battled to drive out Al-Qaeda fighters. It also indicated the government's failure to establish the writ of the state in the sensitive border region.

The government's strategy was to capture and hand over foreign fighters, mostly to the US. However, the Afghan Taliban were not arrested. Instead, tribes in Waziristan were encouraged to provide them refuge. This strategy was meant to keep the Pakistani Taliban happy by conceding more and more administrative control to them - no matter what the cost. The government allowed the Taliban to do pretty much what they wanted. This short-sighted policy of appeasement encouraged the militants to extend their influence and reign of terror over a large swathe of the tribal region. The militants were also joined by criminals and drug traffickers who used the movement for their vested interests.

The Musharraf government's policy of alternating military campaigns with peace failed to deliver stability. The start-stop military campaigns have had a completely opposite effect to what was expected and exposed the government's weakness. Most of the actions came under external pressure and lacked conviction. The policy was run by Musharraf and his generals who were completely alienated from the public. It was not possible for a government which had little public support to effectively fight extremism.

The situation has not changed much after the installation of an elected government after the landmark February 18 elections. The recent advance of the local Taliban has been aided 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.

Last month, Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani 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 by the civilian government of its own ineptitude. It refuses to take ownership of the anti-terrorism policy. Indeed the civilian government has inherited this problem, but three months down the road the coalition government has failed to give a clear policy direction on the issue which presents the most serious threat to Pakistan's national security - in fact, threatens its very survival. Instead, the government is now completely depending on the military to salvage the situation.

Hundreds of paramilitary troops, backed by tanks, launched an operation in Bara town in Khyber Agency against Mangal Bagh after an increase in their criminal activities around Peshawar. The government declared that the operation had successfully concluded after two days. But reports emanating from the area indicated that the operation was just an eyewash. Hardened militants are still active and roaming around with impunity right under the watch of the security forces.

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 PML-N 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 a two-hour drive from Islamabad. The so-called peace negotiations with the militants in South Waziristan and the accord in Swat have failed to deliver peace. Not that the Taliban are very strong; more accurately it is the collapse of law enforcement that has allowed them this space. Weakened and demoralised law enforcement agencies have emboldened the militants.

The lack of will among the police is obvious. Police stations on 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 Frontier 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 skeptical 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.

It is apparent that the situation in NWFP has spun out of control and there is a clear and present danger of disastrous long-term political consequences. It will become increasingly difficult to contain Islamic militancy in other parts of the country if the rising Taliban movement in the tribal areas and the NWFP is not curbed.

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