Battle at Bajaur

Battle to be won or lost in Bajaur
By Ismail Khan, Dawn, September 21, 2008

THE battle in the Bajaur Agency has not only become a tipping-point for Pakistan’s internal security, it can also have a deep impact on the country’s status as a key US ally in the war against terrorism. In the second week of August, the operation started haltingly to prevent what looked like the imminent fall of Bajaur’s regional headquarters, Khaar, to the militants.

Having suffered initial reversals, the operation is now on at full throttle. It has created a surrender-or-die situation for the militants and a now-or-never moment for the country’s security forces.

Predictably, the militants are using everything they have to hold their ground. Government and security officials say that they are baffled by the resilience and stiff resistance offered by the battle-hardened fighters, by their tactics and the sophistication of their weapons and communications systems.

“They have good weaponry and a better communication system (than ours),” said a senior official. “Even the sniper rifles they use are better than some of ours. Their tactics are mind-boggling and they have defences that would take us days to build. It does not look as though we are fighting a rag-tag militia; they are fighting like an organised force.”

More worryingly, the Bajaur battleground has attracted militants from other tribal regions and from across the border, from Afghanistan’s eastern Kunar province. It has long been known that there are foreign militants in Bajaur, but their numbers have always been thought to be small. Now, their ranks are swelling, catching by surprise many veterans in the civil-military establishment. This supply line from Kunar to Bajaur has, however, eased the pressure in Afghanistan. Western diplomatic sources acknowledge that the level of violence in Kunar has dropped appreciably since the launch of the operation in Bajaur, indicating a planning and operational linkage that overlaps the Durand Line.

Realising how crucial and critical the Bajaur operation is — and the massive impact it can have on restive neighbouring tribal regions — the army has lined up tremendous resources to make quick headway.

Concern for backlash

Government and security sources say that so far the operation is going well. However, there are concerns that rising numbers of civilian casualties in a lengthening conflict may cause public and political backlash, and undermine the national support needed to succeed in Bajaur. The Jamaat-i-Islami, for one — which has a strong political base in Bajaur and has had close ties with Gulbadin Hekmatyar’s Hizb-i-Islami (which operates in Kunar) — has already launched a campaign against the operation.

For now, government and security officials are staying put and are determined to take the battle to what they call “its logical conclusion”.

To gauge the seriousness of this operation a brigade of the Pakistan Army has, for perhaps the first time, been placed under the command of the recently-posted Inspector General of Frontier Corps, Maj-Gen Tariq Khan, to ensure the unity of command and effectiveness.

The security forces are relieved by much-needed words of praise from an otherwise sceptical and suspicious American administration regarding the action in Bajaur. On Thursday, US Defence Secretary Robert Gates told reporters in Kabul that the US was “encouraged” by the security forces’ operation in Bajaur.

At home, meanwhile, important members of the political leadership have stopped expressing misgivings about the establishment’s intentions in terms of dealing with militancy; they acknowledge that this operation is for real.

“There is a change in their approach,” said a senior politician from the NWFP. “They seem serious. As to what caused this change of mind, we really have no idea.”

One view being expressed among political circles is that the gravity of the security threat to national integrity, crucial support from the current leadership and growing public mobilisation in Buner, Dir and Bajaur have together served as a shot in the arm for the military, enabling it to decisively take on the militants.

An additional fillip has been provided by the American administration’s upping of the ante. President George W. Bush’s July authorisation to permit operations in Pakistan’s tribal areas forced the army high command to come up with a strong reaction.

More importantly, the US commando raid in Angoor Adda made the top brass reiterate the commitment that they alone will take action on Pakistani soil, and Bajaur is the litmus test of this commitment. This has helped the government ‘own’ the operation as being driven by internal security concerns and has changed the perception that action was being taken under external pressure.

More aggressive approach

Bajaur, thus, may constitute the beginning of a more aggressive approach and strategy by Pakistan’s armed forces, backed equally by the political leadership.

The success of this approach may not only initiate the unravelling of the militants’ insurgency in the tribal region — though total elimination would take much longer and would require a host of other measures such as political, administrative and economic reforms — it may also restore to the state and its security forces much-needed credibility at home and abroad.

Equally crucial, however, would be the extent of the collateral damage, for that may tip the balance either way and cause the loss of local support to the government. Tribal support, therefore, would be of critical importance. The Salarzai and Utmankhel tribes have already risen against the militants, albeit for reasons of their own. But it would be the Mamonds, which constitute a stronghold of the militants, which could really tilt the balance in the government’s favour.

Analysts say that any failure, or the abandonment of the operation midway as occurred, for a variety of reasons, in South Waziristan, Darra Adamkhel and Swat, could potentially not only undermine the gains made so far in Bajaur, but could also cast a negative spell on the ongoing operations in Swat and elsewhere.

“Needless to say, such a situation would not only embolden the militants on the one hand, on the other it would give the cynics in Washington and Kabul an excuse to point to Pakistan’s lack of ability and political will to fight this war,” commented a seasoned observer.

Clearly, therefore, the Bajaur operation is being watched closely by policy-makers in the US, and may shape that country’s strategy vis-à-vis Pakistan and the tribal areas, Bush’s July authorisation notwithstanding.

The stakes are equally high for the militants in Bajaur which, after Waziristan, is perhaps the second most significant stronghold of the militants.

Militant leader Maulvi Faqir Muhammad is the deputy to Baitullah Mehsud’s Tehreek-Taliban Pakistan, whose fighters are not only waging a war against Pakistani security forces but are also involved actively in the ‘jihad’ in Afghanistan, particularly in the bordering eastern province of Kunar. Faqir Muhammad is known to wield a lot of influence over militants operating in Swat under Maulana Fazlullah, who draws strength and support in large measure from Bajaur.

Militants in the Mohmand tribal region would also be watching the operation in neighbouring Bajaur with a great deal of anxiety, since the triumphs and losses of their comrades in arms and ideology may also decide their own fate.

Having said this, however, much would depend on the strategy the government adopts in the post-operation scenario, to consolidate its grip over Bajaur in order to prevent the resurgence of the militants, and to introduce a rehabilitation package for hundreds of thousands of Bajauris.

Officials say that a one-time package of $7.2 million is ready for such an intervention, based mostly on commitments made by international donors. But the full success of the entire operation will also be determined by how quickly, efficiently and transparently this rehabilitation process is carried out and implemented.

Victory for either side may not be soon in the coming, but one thing is certain: it may largely determine the future course of events in Pakistan.

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