Operation Sirat-e-Mustaqeem: as straight as a coil!
The News, July 02, 2008
By Mohammad Malick
PESHAWAR: Who is really in charge in the Khyber Agency and who has written the script of the operation Sirat-e-Mustakeem to deal with the Fata situation and are the unfolding events unravelling as per the predetermined script?
One militant commander claimed that an informal arrangement had been reached prior to the beginning of the operation whereby approximately 25 ‘bigger structures’ shall be blown in the Bara region by the security forces and then the process will stop. We will soon know whether this statement is true or was it just a deliberate misleading assertion. I have been counting the structures and approximately nine of the structures blown up so far fall in this category. So the jury is still out on this issue till this blowing up process in Bara division officially comes to an end. Meanwhile, start keeping the count.
What we are seeing is a highly orchestrated charade, designed primarily for the benefit of the visiting US Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher (to show that the US money is being spent well) because on the domestic front the government has yet to formulate a coherent strategy and the timing simply does not make any other sense.
On the fourth day of the operation, empty residences and so-called central structures of the three banned outfits of Lashkar-e-Islam, Ansar-ul-Islam and Tanzeem Amar Bil Maroof Wa Nahi Anil Munqar continue to be blown up by the security forces but surprisingly not a single militant foot soldier of any group had been arrested so far, what to talk of their leadership.
And it’s not as if the militants have all melted away in the hills. They are right there, and all the time. Surely it makes sense for the authorities to remove the hideouts and operational bases of the criminals but what is expected to change unless the culprits themselves are apprehended?
Unless, of course to begin with real arrests were never a part of the ‘real plan’! As for blowing up the buildings, it’s hardly an issue for these extremely cash rich outfits to build up new structures in new locations so by glorifying such blowing ups, so who are we fooling here?
The reaction of the targeted militant outfits to the operation continues to be dismissively smug, almost as if they already know the outcome. When I asked about the impact of the ban on his group, Haji Namdar group’s central spokesman, Munsif Ali Khan Afridi simply chuckled and retorted “when we didn’t take their permission to start the party, why should we be worried about any bans imposed by them”. Worried about your security, I asked, and he just grinned as if I had posed an idiotic question. A telling reaction of a man otherwise confined to a wheelchair because of an earlier failed attempt on his life.
There are no two opinions in Fata about the fact that the present chaos is a direct consequence of the Musharraf regime destroying the old administrative order of governance through Political Agent and local Tribal elders and replacing it with direct Army intrusion, with the executors of the new dispensation having no idea whatsoever about how to deal with the tribal people, their issues, or having any understanding of their cultural and political ethos.
It was this destruction of the old order, which was working despite its million flaws, and the absence of a viable working alternative that created a power void ultimately filled by the likes of Mangal Bagh. So to understand how to undo the existing mayhem we need to know more about the likes of Namdar, Mangal Bagh etc: the leaders of the new disorder; not its cause, but its consequence.
The Lashkar-e-Islam Chief, Mangal Bagh, or Amir Mangal Bagh as reverently addressed by his followers, is an interesting phenomenon. He started off as a truck cleaner, like thousands of fellow poor Pashtuns but that’s where the similarity ends. After putting a brief stint in the Awami National Party, he tagged on to the all powerful Mufti Munir Shakir and when the mufti was ousted along with his rival from Bara as a consequence of a long sectarian feud, Mangal moved in quickly to claim the vacated throne of a fast growing militia. And this journey from a cleaner to a commander only took four to five years.
Today, he is a feared commander of his own Islamic Lashkar, with thousands of heavily armed militants serving at his beck and call, and millions of rupees deposited in his Bait-ul-Maal on one phone call. And judging from the size of his religious army involving a fighting force of thousands of highly indoctrinated young men, well kept 4x4 vehicles numbering an estimated minimum of 250 plus, and the immense ammunition stockpiles, a lot of calls must be made by him and his lieutenants. Such fundraising from grudging donors like terrified businessmen, etc, must prove a hassle at times but it surely beats riding as the driver’s sidekick inside a cramped wooden cabin of a Bedford truck.
But Mangal Bagh is not alone in securing funds by any means possible as the revenue raising methods of almost all the main players in various parts of Fata remain the same; extortion from those ‘not walking the path of Siraat-e-Mustakeem; international funding which is mostly on the basis of ideological compatibility or an alliance based on brotherhood of sect; local donations (a significantly small percentage of revenues but far more important in terms of creating a legitimate perception of popularity amongst local population); and kidnapping for ransom of juicy targets from the settled areas.
But one big difference separates him from the other players in the Bara area. Unlike Haji Namdar and Qazi Mehboobul Haq, he is vehemently opposed to allowing any foreigner like Uzbeks or Chechens into ‘his territory’.
While the other two are said to operate on the Taliban pattern of co-opting foreign militants and thereby even al-Qaeda cadres (though both groups deny it), Mangal Bagh essentially remains a Pashtun nationalist at least in terms of the ethnic identity of his Lashkar and his own ‘governance policies’.
The question now arises as to why he alone has been portrayed as the declared public enemy number one by our official Fata handlers, both civil and military even though he is openly known to be opposed to the Taliban and al-Qaeda, both regarded as the serious most threat for Pakistan? Sure, Mangal must be cut in tracks and made accountable for his purported criminal acts but then the others are indulging in the same practices in the same region as well, so why this discretion?
The answer according to some insiders is that while Mangal Bagh may have benefited from certain co-operations and concessions of agencies concerned, he nevertheless did not owe his entire rise to such largess of vested interests who otherwise over the years have both given benefits to and received benefits from select militant leaders involved with one ongoing Jihad or another in and around Afghanistan. And, therefore, Mangal is neither jumping at every given cue nor does he have the right connections at the right level within the right institutional players. Therefore, orchestrating his ultimate downfall (but even this has a big question mark for now) could prove a real winner for our Fata saviours: internationally, the world (read: the United States) gets to savour the crushing of a big warlord and so it’s a case of anti-terrorism funds well spent, while on the local front the only variable element is removed from the tribal power politics of Khyber Agency.
The purpose of this rather detailed dilation upon the goings on in Khyber Agency is not to glorify any Mangal Bagh, Haji Namdar or any other of their ilk but only to show that while the critical situation in Fata warrants a well thought-out macro approach towards conflict resolution, what is happening on ground in Bara sub-division is that the continued micro (mis)management of Fata situation by vested interests, blinded by their myopic short-term financial and influence interests, coupled with a highly ignorant leadership like that of Rehman Malik and Governor Owais Ghani is bound to set the Fata ball rolling in the potentially fatal wrong direction. As an outsider, however, maybe Governor Owais is still a comparative blessing because at one point Asif Zardari had decided to appoint his old buddy and former IB chief Masood Sharif as NWFP governor and had not Asfandyar Wali put his foot down on this appointment, the ongoing Fata circus could have been even more absurd.
The ongoing tribal areas operation, supposedly aimed at restoring the government’s writ has started from Khyber Agency and, therefore, the outcome here may prove a study case of the employed policy and tactical measures.
However, what makes the situation really alarming is that Khyber Agency due to its close proximity to Peshawar has always been relatively the most peaceful of all the tribal agencies and if the government were to get bad results here, then in other agencies, where the situation is far worse, the outcome will be outright disastrous, to say the least.
The ignorance of the planners is evident from the strategy of dealing with one agency at a time. The problems of Fata are not individual agency-oriented, but a common outcome of problems and injustices compounded over the last six decades.
The solution has to be all encompassing and collective in essence, and individual only in terms of implementation. But this simple understanding apparently is too complex for the existing Fata handlers in Islamabad and Peshawar.