America’s recent ground attack has prompted another intense dissection of Pakistan’s own policy of attempting to reassert the writ of the State, especially in many NWFP districts and in the tribal areas. The writ of the State seems to have evaporated against the backdrop of growing problem of militancy, sectarianism and terrorism including suicide bombings targeting of law-enforcement and security personnel.
The facts about the tribal areas continue to be very disturbing. Whatever the government may claim and the action that the army may be taking, by all accounts the tribal areas and many of their neighbouring districts seem to lie beyond the pale of government. In the daily lives of the locals government is virtually absent. Beginning with their security to economic and physical sustenance the State plays virtually no role. How much control does the government now exercise? Hardly any. In most of the tribal areas the Taliban, Al-Qaeda and the locals hold sway.
The presence and control of the militant groups, including the Taliban and foreigners who are battling the State, and occasionally the locals, who also tend to go across the Durand line, is not successfully contested by the Pakistani army. If until recently the mandate of the army and of the security agencies operating in the tribal areas was not clearly outlined, now the problem has grown more complex. Military force alone was never the answer to the growing militancy.
Many factors have contributed to strengthening the Taliban and the foreign fighters and making them almost formidable: a people given to avenging what they perceive to be injustice and unfairness, the presence of US forces in Afghanistan, the US attacks in the tribal areas, killing of innocent civilians, the massive mis-governance and political alienation within Afghanistan, the motivation to enforce Shariah by any means available, the encouragement by various foreign and local intelligence agencies to battle the “adversary.”
In addition to this list, were there any specific events that heightened the anti-army sentiment? Yes, two attacks. One was the October 2006 US missile attack on a Bajaur madrassa run by the Taliban, which killed about 80 students and teachers and the Pakistani military’s Lal Masjid operation of July 10, 2007. They greatly contributed to the alienation and the deep resentment of Pakistani forces felt by the local tribals. Under Gen Parvez Musharraf the army on occasion accepted responsibility for attacks carried out by American drones.
The important fact now is that the widespread local support that perhaps existed years ago now presents a mixed picture. The deteriorating security situation has directly put the local public in the firing line of the security forces and the militants. This has led to peoples’ disenchantment with the militants. Many of thee militants, when they had started off in the name of Islam were supported and encouraged by the local population. Then the Taliban, the settled foreigners and Al Qaeda elements were busy constructing mosques and were welcomed by the locals. But now many locals reportedly maintain that the men who came yesterday and asked for contribution for the masjid fund were welcomed at our doorstep and indeed were viewed as Allah’s blessing are today viewed with fear and resentment. They are now seen as being responsible for wrecking their lives. No less for introducing blood-curdling beheadings and throat-slitting using saws, something that the local tribals have never been able to accept.
The foreigners spread at varying degrees in the tribal areas include the Uzbeks, Tajiks and Arabs who came in the post 9/11 period mostly. Many are now settled married to locals and bought land. Also, the new foreigners, often the relatives of the settled ones, still travel across the Durand Line.
At the same time, contrary to the past practice, perhaps passion, of many locals to go across and fight against the US forces, comparatively few care about the war in Afghanistan. The passion of the post-9/11 period has worn off among the locals, but foreigners still go across. Their estimated numbers vary from a couple of thousands to many thousands. With less than 90 military posts on the Afghan side of the Durand Line these foreigners move with a degree of facility. Pakistan’s nearly thousands of military posts are not always able to stop the movement of these variously motivated warriors.
The Taliban and the Al Qaeda are now relatively more effective because they have strong intelligence, the locals have virtually minimal protection by the State, the army not been successful in blocking the expansion and power of these groups. Those local Taliban who have moved from earnest Quranic readings in the small mosques of the tribal areas now to hardcore fighting and killings operate like a very effective force.
What is being achieved through the army operations now in Bajaur? Reportedly little. Will the army win against the militants? It appears that the army operations have not succeeded to substantively weaken the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Instead the innocent have been killed and displaced. Such is the complexity of a problem that at this juncture seems to expand, not shrink.
To add to the problems are the US attacks, including the first ever land attack by the US forces on the night of Sept 3-4. What do the US attacks achieve? These attacks mostly end up killing innocent civilians. The armed and battle-ready Taliban and al-Qaeda have successfully mingled within the local population. Without effective human intelligence it is impossible to separate them from the local population. Given this situation, successful targeting of these elements through ground or air force is virtually impossible. These mobile targets are highly elusive. They often make “actionable intelligence” redundant given the time lag between the intelligence being received and the taking of the action.
What can now be done? Several simultaneous steps must be taken. One, there must be improvement by the government in intelligence gathering. Two, the government must open genuine dialogue with the locals disillusioned by the Taliban and Al Qaeda and seek their alignment with the government. Three, within the cover of strict intelligence, the government must give the potential allies among the locals whatever form of support that is required. Four, a major effort must be made by the government to rehabilitate and improve people’s living conditions. Five, with the four elements in place the army must be there to back the government’s efforts, not lead them.
Carrying on with the current policy promises the unstoppable expansion of the problem. It is a policy that promotes contradiction, not clarity of goals, a reactive, not proactive, approach to tackle the complex problem, and one that seems to sow alienation, not alliance of the local population with the State of Pakistan. A competent, confident and sincere government alone may stand a chance of retrieving the situation, which must include convincing Washington that Pakistan alone can take the lead in determining and in implementing a Pakistani policy to roll back the problem of militancy. In a relationship of mutual trust Washington, can assist within clearly defined parameters.
The writer is an Islamabad-based security analyst
Source: The News, 17/9/2008