Bara operation in Pakistan: anatomy of the response

By Nasim Zehra

The federal government-led operation in Bara Agency has evoked multiple reactions. Barring a few locals from the area interviewed on television who appear satisfied with the action, criticism of the operation has been the dominant thrust of all public commentary. This contrasts with the concerns reflected in media reports, and especially of Peshawar-based politicians, regarding the deteriorating security situation in the settled areas of the NWFP too. According to reports in the area covering the Swat peace deal, school burning, beheading and killings did not end. People supported the peace deal but were desperate for security as well.

The ANP leadership had argued before the operation that the deteriorating security situation in and around Peshawar was being ignored by the federal government. On June 16 a senior ANP leader, federal minister Bashir Ahmed Bilour, said on the floor of the National Assembly during the budget session that there was fear of the entire province “falling to the Taliban” if law enforcement agencies fail to control the situation. The ANP leadership’s message to the federal government for action against the militants was clearly conveyed by the ANP provincial chief, Afrasiab Khattak, who equated Islamabad’s policy of neglect towards the NWFP with that of Lord Curzon during the British Raj. NWFP and FATA bureaucrats were also distraught over the situation. The IG of the police in the NWFP had been quoted in The New York Times as saying that if the situation was not controlled through strict action the province could fall to the Taliban.

Significantly, in the June 13 Peshawar meeting chaired by the advisor of Interior Rehman Malik, the NWFP and FATA bureaucracy, including the Political Agents, had maintained that the security agencies were involved in providing sanctuary to militants in FATA. The political and bureaucratic consensus was that the deteriorating security situation in the settled areas, including Peshawar, was an extension of the problems in FATA and PATA. They also repeatedly argued that the provincial police was not equipped to perform counterinsurgency duties. The responsibility, they concluded, lay with the federal government.

But merely 24 hours into the Operation, led by the paramilitary Frontier Corps and backed by the army, public space erupted with criticism of the Operation. The JUI and Jamaat-i-Islami have argued that the Operation is an attempt by the Federal government and security agencies to control the area. During his brief visit to Peshawar Qazi Hussain Ahmad held a press conference in which he said he is from Peshawar and he knows there are no security problems in Peshawar. He said the Taliban do not have the means to cause trouble in Peshawar. He said this operation, which is actually an American plan, is killing innocent people. Maulana Fazlur Rehman said the problem was deliberately allowed to fester for the creating of this situation. Another NWFP-based political figure has claimed that the present action has been taken to clear the route for the movement of NATO forces.

Meanwhile, the PPP’s main coalition ally, the PML-N, has openly dissociated itself from the action. Its leadership says it had not been consulted. The JUI, the other coalition partner, also claims ignorance. Responding to the statement of the coalition partner the prime minister has said on June 30 that the coalition partner had been given a briefing.

The last joint meeting on internal security in FATA and NWFP, in which all the coalition leaders were present, was held on the army chief’s request on April 13 at the Prime Minister’s House. In this meeting the army chief and the ISI made a presentation. No follow-up meeting on internal security challenges among the coalition leaders took place. In the subsequent ISI briefing on May 16 given at its headquarters, none of the political leaders accompanied the PPP co-chairman. Only the prime minister did. In response to a question regarding the setting up of a task force on Internal security, to ensure inter-party coordination, Mr Zardari had told Aaj Television in an interview that the ANP was given all authority to take action in the NWFP as “the party on the ground. ”

If the PML-N has announced its distance from, and perhaps differences over, the operation, the near-silence over the operation of the ANP, the lead party of the NWFP government, is intriguing. Despite the ANP chief minister’s participation in the June 25 pre-operation Islamabad meeting chaired by the prime minister, consistent coordination seems to be lacking between the ANP leadership and the federal government. For example, the prime minister’s brief airport chat in Peshawar on June 29, after the operation began, cannot substitute for sustained coordination. Even meetings between the ANP leadership and the representative of the federation, including NWFP governor Owais Ghani, advisor Rehman Malik and even the corps commander, does not translate into a common political message on the operation. With the recently set security-specific provincial coordination committee chaired by the governor and members, including the chief minister, the chief secretary and the corps commander, the federation and the province can speak with one voice.

Meanwhile, there is the media’s skepticism regarding the operation. While a popular television anchor concluded in his recent programme that 5,000 Taliban are delivering to the 20 million people in FATA and the NWFP what the people need, hence making it impossible for the entire world plus Pakistan, one of the world’s best armies, to defeat the Taliban. Another newspaper questioned the seriousness of the current operation, given that key militants like the chief of the Lashkar-e-Islami, Mangal Bagh, have been let off. In private conversations even key NWFP politicians question the efficacy of an operation which has been announced by the federal government as only a five-day operation. “Will they not disappear peacefully four, five days, and reappear after the operation end,” queried one of them.

The operation is also being criticised for undermining the Swat peace deal, although according to media reports peace in Swat is still missing. The political complexity of the current situation is illustrated by the ANP’s keenness to salvage the peace deal. The ANP insists this too must be given a chance.

There are other operation-related issues which raise questions about the government’s understanding of the skills, the political wisdom, the coordination and the discipline of detail required to deal with the acute internal security crisis. For example, while the interior advisor insists the government is targeting only law breakers, the prime minister repeatedly insists that extremist are being targeted. This difference in terminology is significant because of its political implication in an environment where the word “extremist” has only a subjective interpretation. “Law breaker” and “mafia gang,” on the other hand, are a more concretely definable category.

Similarly, the prime minister’s post-operation statements, which implies that the federal government did not enter into an agreement with any group and that the violated Swat agreement makes it imperative for the government to establish its writ, conveys some confusion. Are the policy-making circles aware of the nature of these groups operating in the settled areas and FATA? These militarily active groups cannot be divided into separate entities; they are connected, however loosely. Action against them anywhere would trigger a reaction in other areas. Meanwhile, the Prime Minister’s reference to the violation of the Swat Accord triggering the operation is also contrary to the understanding by the federal government to the ANP that action would begin only if all violation of the accord by Tehreek-e-Nifaz-e-Shariah-e-Mohammadi (TNSM) ended within a week.

These are issues that cannot be ignored if the government is determined to draw up a consensus-based viable strategy for a more secure Pakistan. Obviously, strategy tools must include a combination of dialogue, development, diplomacy and force.

Unfortunately, despite the problem that exists, the fact that the three-day old operation has stoked the fires of political differences, distrust and lack of confidence between the government, and all political parties, including its coalition partner, does not augur well. No matter what the government maintains and what the facts are, this civilian operation with FC men in khaki behind guns and in APCs and backed by the army, has gone down as a military operation.

A task force, to ensure coordination among the political leaders, to formulate a consensus policy and an inter-institutional policy implementation arrangement, is essential. Individual efforts, however skilled, are no substitute for continuous coordination. A task force chaired by the prime minister with a regular meeting schedule can alone provide the institutional framework required for comprehensive political and institutional coordination. But even sooner, the missing step, a parliamentary debate on the acute internal security crisis and terrorism, must be held. The parliamentarians must tell their voters how they intend to deal with the growing internal security problem.

The government needs to go back to the drawing board to draw up in genuine coordination with political forces and input by the army and agencies, a viable policy, within the existing legal and constitutional framework, to establish the writ of state and win back the support if the locals.

The writer is an Islamabad-based security analyst

Source: The News, 2/7/2008


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