The Battle for Bajaur

Spearhead Analysis 12-10-2008
The Battle for Bajaur

The attack on the Marriott in Islamabad, the attacks on political leaders in NWFP, the attack on the tribal lashkar in FATA and the attack on the Anti Terrorist Police Force Headquarters in Islamabad are all part of the Taleban’s ‘external maneuver’ in the battle for Bajaur. Also part of this strategy are the deliberate statements and media reports from their sympathizers in Pakistan—statements that sow confusion and discord. Bajaur, in FATA, borders Afghanistan in the west and the insurgent infested Swat area to the east and it is a hub for lateral movement within FATA. The battle is being fought in the area beyond Bajaur’s capital Khar, and reports indicate that the insurgents are dug into fortified tunnel linked defenses and equipped with sniper rifles, latest weapons, latest communications and excellent cross country vehicles. There is confirmation that, like all such battle zones, the area is a magnet for Arabs, Chechens, Uzbeks and Afghans from the lawless Taleban controlled areas of Southern Afghanistan. The bigger question is—who is masterminding, funding and equipping the insurgents? This leads to the need for hardening the border, joint patrols, financial controls, and action against Afghan mafias controlling weapons and drugs and the return of Afghan refugees from Pakistan----steps that have been much discussed but not taken. Obviously the answer is effective Pak-Afghan co-operation with no outside interference.

Pakistan tried many strategies. Initially the time honored tactic of discouraging lawlessness by using local security forces through the political administration was employed---this failed because the administration was no longer effective. Then the emphasis shifted to the influence of local tribal leaders---a wave of assassinations targeting ‘collaborators’ put paid to that idea, Operations with the Army as the lead agency met limited success and political pressures led to peace accords in 2005/6---these failed when the insurgents used the time and space to regroup by making demands that could not be met without loss of sovereignty. Through most of these phases there were the religious MMA backed governments in NWFP and Baluchistan. Madressahs mushroomed and as geographic space in FATA came under Taleban control they created an umbrella organization –the TTP (Tehrik Taleban Pakistan) to coordinate inter FATA and cross border movement as well as spread their influence and ‘operational area’ deeper into Pakistan even establishing linkages that gave them attack capabilities in the major cities---brutal killings with videos showing gory details and spectacular suicide attacks created terror and mayhem and this effect was multiplied by sophisticated use of the internet and the media. The battle for Bajaur is the newest and most determined venture to begin the process of regaining control and establishing the writ of the government. The battle has to be a part of the overall national strategy to win the hearts and minds of people eventually going on to effective governance, administration, infra-structure development and uplift of the people.

So far out of the over 2800 militants killed more than a 1000 have been killed in the Bajaur operation where security force losses are 65 according to official figures. Hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced deeper into Pakistan while an
estimated 70000 Afghan refugees have crossed over into Afghanistan. Sadly there has been inevitable collateral damage and the displaced men, women and children are suffering. The military is relying on air delivered and support weapon fire power to clear what is being described as the ‘center of gravity’ and ‘fortress’ of the insurgency and much is being made of insurgent motivation. The military operation continues but as in all counter insurgency operations the biggest constraint is the fact these are our people and we have to eventually resolve the conflict with them. This led to the idea of loyal tribesmen forming lashkars that would resist militant incursion—the devastating suicide attack in Aurakzai Agency of FATA targeted a jirga convened to form such a lashkar. The effect of the direct clash in the battle and the indirect impact of the ‘external maneuver’ have a significant co-relationship.

There are events that impact on Bajaur and create a broader picture. The attacks by US forces on targets in the FATA-Afghanistan border areas; reports of talks with Taleban to end what is increasingly being seen as an ‘unwinnable war’; indications of US plans to ‘revisit Afghanistan and Pakistan’ in their overall strategy for the region and their evolving relationship with India and, finally, the internal situation within Pakistan---especially the vulnerability created by the economic and security situation. The ongoing ‘in camera’ briefing to the Joint Session of Parliament must have been under this broad overview with a comprehensive threat perception picture and the total national response to the threat. The military’s operational briefing was evidently one facet of this response and the last meeting of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee highlighted this aspect with the assurance of services support to the governments’ efforts to combat the threat.

Victory in battles is important because this sets the stage for conflict resolution. But in today’s globalized and interconnected world it is important to project the image of an economically viable, politically stable and environmentally secure country---this makes battle fighting capacity credible. No longer can statements and media footage create impressions---the reality on the ground and within the state is visible to all. The heart of the problem is the declining economic situation because of external and internal factors. Fortunately there are answers. US support to a strategic ally---if only we all fully accept the reality of this partnership—and unstinted support from the UK and all the Friends of Pakistan forum members as well as the Enhanced Partnership with Pakistan bill making its way through US legislative procedures.. There is support from the World Bank and with subsidies gone we should not have a problem with going to the IMF. Iran has promised support and the bilateral relationship with India is on a reasonably positive track. The Muslim world has always been supportive. There is crisis management capacity (we have just weathered a subversive onslaught on our banking system) and enormous resilience. Suffering can be endured if there is the perception that it is universally distributed--- otherwise social pressures can be massively destabilizing. Responsive governance stemming from political stability can be a decisive factor.

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