Taking on Taliban

Print edition : February 21, 2014

Investigators collect evidence following a suicide bombing in Karachi, on January 10. Photo: Fareed Khan/AP

Internally displaced Pakistani tribal people, fleeing from military operations against Taliban militants in North Waziristan, arrive in Bannu on January 22. Photo: KARIM ULLAH/AFP

Relatives of a Pakistani soldier who was killed in a suicide attack by militants, at his funeral in Kohat on January 20. Photo: Syed Ijaz/AP

Hakimullah Mehsud, the Pakistani Taliban leader who was killed in a U.S. drone strike. Photo: Ishtiaq Mehsud/AP

Pakistan: With the repeated targeting of the Army in North Waziristan and the recent terror attacks elsewhere in the country, the government seems to have little option but to go in for a military operation against the Taliban.

IT WAS an enterprise doomed from the start. When the All Parties Conference (APC) held on September 9, 2013, gave the government the green signal for dialogue with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), there was a surge of hope for peace. Subsequent events proved that it was short-lived. A week after the APC, militants killed two Army officers in Upper Dir district in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. This was followed by a spate of bombings in Peshawar, including a suicide attack on a church, killing over 80 persons at Sunday prayers. Yet, the government persisted with its efforts at mediation, and just as it was planning to send a team of negotiators to meet TTP chief Hakimullah Mehsud, he was killed in a drone strike on November 1, 2013. An outraged Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan was swift to pin the blame on the United States for deliberately snuffing out what was the start of a peace dialogue. Events since then have indicated that dialogue with the TTP, over which there was much scepticism anyway, will be difficult. Incidents in the new year have effectively put an end to that process for now.

The government is weighing targeted military strikes in the tribal areas, as discussed in a recent high-level security meeting chaired by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. The military had resorted to targeted operations in December after the attack on a check post in North Waziristan. But in the wake of two bomb blasts recently, in Bannu Cantonment and near the General Headquarters in Rawalpindi, in a rare use of air power it bombed militant hideouts in North Waziristan and killed over 40 militants, including four Taliban leaders. Thirty-three of those killed were Uzbek nationals and three were Germans.

The government has still kept the dialogue option open, but by now it is clear that there is little to talk about. The former Army chief, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, who attended the APC, was on the same page as the government and had, in a public statement, made his position clear, favouring dialogue. But the repeated targeting of the Army in North Waziristan and the recent terror attacks have prompted the military to show readiness for what could be a full-fledged operation, backed by the federal government, against the Taliban.

Blow hot, blow cold

The Taliban, on the other hand, is blowing hot and cold over the peace talks. It has claimed responsibility for most of the bombings recently. The media too have not been spared. The offices of Express News in Karachi were targeted twice last year. In January, three of its staffers were shot dead. The TTP has a hit list of media persons and offices and has no hesitation in owning up to attacks as it did in the Express staffers’ killings. Its actions have left little doubt that the terror outfit has no interest in dialogue, despite its odd statement favouring talks. It has made it clear time and again that its aim of enforcing the Sharia law in Pakistan cannot come about through such a process.

The government has come around to the fact that the recent attacks in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and in Balochistan will necessitate stronger initiatives than dialogue. After the spate of attacks on Shia pilgrims in Balochistan and widespread protests, security agencies have cracked down on militants there. Karachi is already in the throes of targeted operations by the police and the paramilitary force, the Pakistan Rangers, to curb rising crime and terror. Over 20 Hazara Shias were killed when the bus in which they were returning from Iran was bombed in Mastung. Sectarian violence is spiralling out of control.

The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), led by cricket star Imran Khan, was vociferous in its demand for dialogue with the TTP. Imran Khan claimed at a press conference that the Army would only have a 40 per cent chance of success in a military operation against terrorists and that the government had not actually initiated talks. However, he, too, has come around to backing the Army but feels the government should take all parties into its confidence. The media and civil society favour a decisive intervention to take the terrorists head on. Under growing internal pressure and accusations of paralysis and indecision, the government and the military have to weigh their options in favour of military strikes.

Key questions

A key question Pakistan has to address is cross-border terrorism. In 2011, the then Chairperson of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mark Mullen, told the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee that the Haqqani network acted as a “veritable arm” of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Pakistan’s intelligence agency. The network’s financier Naseeruddin was shot dead near his house in Islamabad last year. Although Pakistan denies it supported the Haqqani network, the U.S. has persisted with its contention and demanded action against the Haqqanis. This gets reflected in the Consolidated Appropriations Bill, which President Barack Obama signed on January 17. It links aid to Pakistan’s actions with regard to terrorism and the release of Dr Shakil Afridi, who is in jail for helping the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) track down Osama bin Laden in 2011. The Bill has provisions to withhold $33 million in aid unless Dr Afridi is released and cleared of all charges. There are also provisions to block aid until Secretary of State John Kerry certifies that Pakistan is not supporting terrorist activities against the U.S. or the coalition forces in Afghanistan. A key aspect is Pakistan’s cooperation with the U.S. to deal with counterterrorism efforts against the Haqqani network and other terror groups and to prevent them from operating from Pakistan.

The Pakistan Security Report 2013 brought out by the Pak Institute for Peace Studies (PIPS) mentions a 39 per cent rise in suicide strikes in the country over the previous year. It also says that militant, nationalist, insurgent and violent sectarian groups carried out a total of 1,717 terrorist attacks in 2013, killing 2,451 people and injuring over 5,000. The government has said that 40,000-50,000 people have been killed over the years in terrorist violence.

Another issue for Pakistan is the drawdown of the coalition forces in Afghanistan and the general election there in April. Pakistan is under pressure to release Afghan militants to aid peace talks. The release of Taliban commander Mullah Baradar from jail in Pakistan in September 2013 has unfortunately not netted much in those terms. Even the Afghan High Peace Council, which briefly met Baradar, was not satisfied that he was a free man, though Pakistan insists he is.

In the final analysis, targeted operations can only achieve limited success though the government needs quick results to assuage the clamour for action. In the long term, focus on de-radicalisation of society and the dismantling of thousands of madrassas which train young minds in a particular way need to be a part of the strategy. While there have been a few forays in this direction, the government has decided to pass the Protection of Pakistan (Amendment) Ordinance, 2014, which gives expanded powers for arrest and longer detention to security and law-enforcing agencies. This has evoked protests from rights groups.

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) has voiced alarm at the promulgation of the law and said it violated constitutionally guaranteed rights and legitimised illegalities. The HRCP statement said: “There are far too many things in the ordinance that rights-respecting individuals would find difficult to stomach. The main concerns include giving the authorities the power to withhold information regarding the location of any detainee, or grounds for such detention; detention of a person in internment centre instead of ordinary jails; creating new classifications of suspects such as ‘enemy alien’ or ‘combatant enemy’; extending the preventive detention period for any suspect; and legitimising illegal detention and enforced disappearance through giving retrospective effect to the law.”

The ordinance comes at a time when the Supreme Court is hearing petitions on missing persons and trying to fix accountability on security agencies. Protesters from the Voice for Missing Baloch Persons are on a long march from Quetta to Islamabad seeking justice. Over 18,000 persons are reported to be missing from Balochistan and several others from the tribal areas. While the government has to act against terrorism, it cannot fall into the trap that many countries have of giving carte blanche to security agencies and further vitiating the situation. There are serious questions over the dismantling of terror networks and training camps. The PIPS report states that despite the killing of some of its top leaders, the major cause of instability in 2013 was the TTP and that its operational capabilities remained intact. Six new groups emerged on the terrorism landscape last year, the report points out, four of which were part of the Al Qaeda-TTP alliance.

In this scenario, while the government seems to have little option but to go in for a military operation, the larger issue of whether that alone is adequate to curb terrorism has to be addressed. As if in readiness, the Prime Minister recently approved a brigade-level cantonment for the Swat and Malakand areas. The country has already seen the impact of military operations in Swat in 2009. It resulted in displacement and chaos but the government deemed it necessary to root out the Taliban which had unleashed a brutal reign there. Military operations have been used to quell nationalist movements in Balochistan.

Going by past experience, the government is faced with the challenge of evolving a more dynamic and deep-rooted strategy to curb terrorism instead of firefighting when pushed to the wall.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor