Aimless talk-and-talk strategy
By Brig Asif Haroon Raja
Some of the glaring reasons that have given rise to religious extremism in Pakistan are as follows: Early demise of Quaid-e-Azam resulted in leadership crisis, which persists to this day. Growth of regionalism gave rise to fissiparous tendencies. Antagonism between seculars and Islamists impeded constitution making for nine years. Widening gulf between rich and poor and callous attitude of the elites towards the deprived class bred discontentment. Selective accountability and pro-rich judicial system added to the frustration of the deprived class. Corruption in all government, judicial and police departments eroded moral turpitude and scruples. Unresolved Kashmir dispute and State terrorism of India against Kashmiris heightened Jihadi tendencies. Western hatred towards Muslims and hounding and persecution of religious elements dubbed as terrorists intensified anti-US feelings. Pakistan rulers got out of sync with the ruled when the people viewed them as puppets of USA serving US agenda. Propagation of modernism and liberalism under the garb of enlightened moderation resulted in spread of obscenity and vulgarity and corresponding increase in religious extremism.
Notwithstanding the centuries old Shia-Sunni divide, sectarian tensions grew in Pakistan after Iranian revolution in March 1979 as a result of Iran and Saudi Arabia funding Shiite and Sunni extremist groups respectively. Violent religious extremism sprouted in Pakistan as a result of Afghan Jihad against Soviet forces in 1980s and the US led western world, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan government and religious right as well as the military establishment supporting the Jihadis. Jihadism received a fillip after the brilliant success achieved by the Mujahideen in Afghanistan and commencement of armed uprising in Kashmir in 1989. When the Jihadis eulogized as holy warriors were dumped by USA in 1989, Osama bin Laden led fighters in reaction formed Al-Qaeda and started attacking American targets.
After 9/11, while the US declared al-Qaeda and Afghan Taliban as terrorists because of their suspected role in terrorist attacks, Pakistan not only ditched Taliban and aligned itself with USA; it changed the status of tribesmen of FATA from defenders of western border and strategic assets into terrorists. Once the security forces entered into South Waziristan (SW) in 2002 to flush out al-Qaeda operatives, the tribesmen under Nek Muhammad turned their guns against them. This change in posture of the militants of tribal belt led to a prolonged war which is still continuing and has resulted in deaths of well over 40,000 people as well as colossal destruction of property. While the Afghan Taliban under Mullah Omar are waging a Jihad against occupation forces to free their country and recapture power, Pakistani Taliban claim to be fighting a Jihad against Pak security forces by terming Pak Army as a mercenary army of the US. They want to make the Muslims better Muslims by preaching its brand of extremist Islam and to impose Shariah in the country. They do not recognize Pakistan’s constitution, democracy and judicial system.
For the achievement of their goal of making Pakistan an Islamic Emirate, they have been resorting to extreme brutalities like assassinations, terror attacks on military and civilian targets, worship places, shrines, funerals and markets. Schools in Swat, FATA and settled areas of KP including Peshawar have been destroyed in large numbers. Kidnapping for ransom, forced recruitment and marriages, beheading of captives and brainwashing teenagers as suicide bombers are their methods to strike terror. IEDs, explosive laden vehicles and suicide bombing are their preferred weapons of destruction. Worst is that unlike in the past when they were supported by Pakistan to wage Jihad outside the borders of Pakistan, now they are aided by non-Muslim powers and Karzai led regime in Kabul to wage war against own people. All these acts are against the principles of Islam.
During Gen Musharraf rule, war on terror was governed by the strategy of ‘fight and sign peace deals with the militants’. The TTP signed peace agreements to gain time, get their prisoners released, regroup and then strike back. This strategy caused little damage to the burgeoning strength of militants. Rather it enabled late Baitullah Mehsud in SW to form Tehrik-e-Taliban-Pakistan (TTP) in December 2007, which has been relentlessly fighting the security forces and expanding its area of influence from seven agencies of tribal belt to settled areas of KP including suburbs of Peshawar and has established strong linkage with Punjabi Taliban.
During the five-year PPP led regime when Gen Kayani was made responsible for external and internal security of the country, barring one peace agreement signed with Maulana Sufi and Fazlullah in Swat in February 2009, no other peace deal was signed. The strategy was changed to fight and fight. This offensive strategy although resulted in heavy casualties of security forces, however, it helped in recapturing all the 17 administrative units less North Waziristan (NW) from the militants in 2009, breaking their back and snatching the initiative from them. The disarrayed militants under Fazlullah took refuge in Kunar hpw and Nuristan. About 3000 militants were captured alive and handed over to the police for trials. It was unfortunate that the judicial prong couldn’t keep in step with the military prong and not a single terrorist was convicted and punished. All were released who later on recommenced their militant activities with a renewed vengeance.
Once TTP’s main HQ in SW was uprooted in November 2009 because of resolute three-pronged offensive, Hakeemullah Mehsud tried to convert upper Orakzai into his next command centre, but couldn’t and then decided to make NW as TTP’s main base of operation. He chose Mir Ali and Miranshah, the two major towns of NW and the suburbs around as sanctuaries for his fighters. Dawar tribe helped them in settling down in Mir Ali. Hafiz Gul Bahadar heading largest tribe of Othmanzai Wazir tribe in NW didn’t object to TTP’s settlement, although he was tied to peace agreement with Pak Army since August 2008 and was obligated to keep his area peaceful and free of anti-military elements. It was like allowing the camel to rest its head inside the tent. With the passage of team, a large no of terrorist groups including foreign groups moved into NW and got affiliated with TTP. These included Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), Jaish-e-Muhammad, Hizbul-Mujahideen, Lashkar-e-Taiba, Janoon-e-Hafsa, Jundullah, Asian Tigers, Ilyas Kashmiri outfit.
Funded and equipped by foreign agencies based in Afghanistan, the TTP was able to muster the support of over 50 groups of different hues and all decided to collectively wage an ideological war. Most of the Punjab based banned groups had sleeping cells in all major cities and towns which enabled TTP Shura to plan and execute deadly attacks on chosen targets anywhere in Pakistan with ease. Their task was made easier by CIA by providing ground intelligence and satellite communication to home on to the desired targets stealthily howsoever well fortified. High profile attacks in Punjab were mostly carried out by Punjabi Taliban. LeJ got active in Quetta where it targeted Shia Hazaras with impunity. TTP and LeJ also joined the turf war of three political parties in Karachi to partake in the loot. Simultaneously, Fazlullah helped by his hosts regrouped his fighters and heated up western border by launching cross border attacks in Mehmand, Bajaur, Dir and Chitral.
Pakistan refrained from launching a major military operation in NW to nip the evil in the bud despite extensive pressure from the US because of its multiple compelling constraints. These included paucity of troops since the Army had already deployed about 150,000 troops in the northwest. Pulling out additional troops would have been at the cost of weakening the critical eastern front and losing strategic balance. With displaced persons from SW, Kurram Agency and Tirah Valley not having returned to their homes, it would result in further displacement from NW. An operation would annoy the only three friendly groups of Hafiz Gul Bahadar, Haqqani network and late Maulvi Nazeer as well as Afghan Taliban, with the possibility of all the groups getting united on a single platform and confronting the Army in a treacherous terrain. With untrustworthy Indo-US-Afghan nexus playing a double game and wanting Corps plus size force to get bogged down in NW, such a course would prove disastrous. However, inaction in NW has given a free hand to TTP affiliated groups to continue striking targets at will.
With the change of government in June 2013, the situation has undergone a change. The PML-N government in the centre and in Punjab, the PTI government in KP and religious political parties/groups are all soft towards the TTP and are keen to hold talks to end the futile war. All parties’ conference was held in last September and a consensus resolution was passed authorizing the government to hold talks with militants unconditionally and to condemn drone attacks which were fuelling terrorism. Since then the government has replaced the fight-fight strategy with talk-talk strategy. This strategy although seemingly wise is devoid of reciprocity from the other side.
Pro-peace lobbies strongly feel that killing of Hakeemullah Mehsud by a drone on November 1, 2013 and drone war have vitiated the atmosphere for talks. Anti-peace lobbies argue that drones didn’t trigger terrorism. They are criticizing the government and Imran Khan for adopting a confused policy of talks when the new chief of TTP Fazlullah has categorically rejected the offer and has further stepped up terror attacks. They say that closure of NATO supply routes in KP by PTI has antagonized the US but failed to appease the TTP. They are pressing the government to either hold talks expeditiously or else deliver the hammer since this policy of dithering is not only undermining the morale of KP Police in particular which is receiving the major brunt of TTP attacks, but is also encouraging the militants to maximize attacks and recapture their lost bases.