By Brig Asif Haroon Raja
Nek Muhammad from Ahmadzai Wazir tribe, Abdullah Mehsud and Baitullah Mehsud, all from South Waziristan (SW) were founding leaders of Pakistani Taliban and had drawn inspiration from Afghan Taliban. They rebelled against the State after regular troops entered SW in 2002 to flush out foreign terrorists and get hold of those who had harbored them. Prior to their movement, Maulana Sufi Muhammad led TNSM in Malakand Division was the first Islamic movement to raise the banner of Shariah in early 1990s. Afghans were also involved in the movement and it became so menacing that an operation led by IGFC Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) had to be launched in 1994. Movement died down after the government agreed to impose Shariah laws in Malakand. Later on Sufi along with his 15000 followers joined Afghan Taliban in their battle against US led invaders in October 2001. Most managed to trek back after ouster of Mullah Omar’s regime one month later.
In 2007, Sufi’s firebrand son-in-law Maulana Fazlullah came in the forefront in Swat because of his fiery speeches on FM radio. He became so popular among the people of the region that women offered their jewelry for his cause of establishing Islamic laws and providing speedy and cheap justice. His radio could not be jammed despite best efforts since the high-tech transmitters were provided by Israel. Seeing his growing popularity, banned Jaish-e-Muhammad and Lashkar-e-Taiba joined him in 2008.
In February 2009, he formally aligned TNSM with TTP, formed in December 2007. His sudden rise to fame was not because of his charisma or humane qualities but because of support of his foreign patrons based in Kabul. Throughout 2008 and till March 2009 he was delivered huge consignments of arms, equipment and satellite connected Thoraya sets which couldn’t be intercepted. These were stored in caves and man-made tunnels in Swat. He established his command and control centre at Peochar to conduct operations from an unassailable vantage point.
Zardari led coalition government of liberal parties kept saying throughout its five-year tenure that it would fight terrorism with full force and would not give up till the elimination of this menace. Imran Khan and Nawaz Sharif however desired ending the war on terror through negotiations. Except for a serious attempt made in February 2009 in Swat wherein peace agreement was inked between Fazlullah led militants and ANP led Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) government, PPP government preferred option of force over talks and increased the troop level in the northwest to 147000. Major operations were carried out in Swat, Shangla, Buner, Dir Malakand, Bajaur and SW in 2009 and TTP’s network was to a large extent dismantled. Thereon, small-scale operations were conducted in remaining tribal agencies and regular troops were deployed in Mehmand and Bajaur Agencies to cater for the threat posed by absconding Fazlullah’s militants based in Kunar and Nuristan. Portion of runaway militants from Swat and SW proceeded to Karachi and added fuel to lawlessness promoted by the three ruling political parties in the port city.
Since supply routes from Afghanistan couldn’t be blocked because of porous nature of Pak-Afghan border, funds and weaponry kept flowing in, which enabled the disarrayed militants under Hakeemullah Mehsud to regroup and convert North Waziristan as their main base of operation and auxiliary bases in other agencies as well as in Dara Adam Khel and certain towns in PATA. Militant activities increased from 2011 onwards. Sea route was another avenue for inflow of illegal weapons. With the connivance of Port & Shipping Authority, Customs Karachi and NATO officials, thousands of NATO containers loaded with arms and equipment went missing. Stolen items were handed over to non-state actors in Karachi and elsewhere.
TTP is aligned with Afghan Taliban as well as with Al-Qaeda, Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, East Turkistan Islamic Movement, Islamic Jihad Council and dozens of extremist militant groups banned by Pakistan, including Asmatullah Muawia’s group called Janood-e-Hafsa comprising Punjabi Taliban, which had sprouted after Lal Masjid operation in Islamabad in July 2007. All have married up with TTP and picked up arms against State forces. That way, the TTP has managed to spread its tentacles in all parts of Pakistan. Hakeemullah is on record praising al-Qaeda and declaring it as a friend and both owe allegiance to Mullah Omar as Ameer-ul Momineen of Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. Likewise, the TTP too has confined its militancy mainly against targets inside Pakistan.
2013 saw surge in acts of terror during and after May elections. While PML-N, PTI, JUI and JI were spared by the TTP during elections because of their apparent softness towards the Taliban and anti-American stance, only liberal parties supporting the US policies and war on terror were targeted. However, in post election period, surprisingly the TTP’s ire has remained mostly focused on PTI ruled KP where PTI”s three ministers have fallen victim to terrorism. Militancy didn’t ebb even after the historic All Parties Conference (APC) on September 9 in which all parties unanimously agreed to give peace a chance and to hold talks with TTP without conditions. It was also decided to exert maximum pressure on the US to halt counterproductive drone attacks which were fuelling terrorism failing which take the issue to the UN. These bold decisions were taken and have so far not been reversed in spite of America’s serious reservations, anger of the liberals and no let up in militant attacks.
In the first place there should have been no talks with non-state actors who have rebelled against the State and are fighting State forces for over a decade. They are involved in heinous crimes and have killed well over 40,000 innocent people including 5000 Army personnel and large number of policemen. They do not recognize Pakistan’s Constitution and reject parliamentary system of democracy and judicial system. They want their extremist brand of Shariah to be introduced. Their worst crime is that the top leadership is receiving financial and material support from foreign agencies inimical to Pakistan and in return is fulfilling their agenda. While every fighter receives monthly salary of Rs 30,000, every suicide bomber and bomb planter gets heavily paid. They hate the elite class in particular and want their ouster from corridors of power and instead want establishment of Islamic Caliphate. Unlike Afghan Taliban wishing to make Afghanistan an Islamic Emirate, some among the TTP desire to bring down the international world order and replace it with Islamic system. This is akin to al-Qaeda’s viewpoint.
Pak military has a definite edge over militants in northwestern regions duly supported by foreign powers. Owing to its robust fighting capacity and unswerving resolve, a marked change has come about in the truculent posture of TTP and of late it is giving strong signals of opening peace talks with the government and putting an end to the war. Several reasons are behind this apparent change. These are hereunder: (1) Cracks have occurred within TTP and those favoring talks outnumber hardliners. (2) Hakeemullah is not in full control over large number of groups affiliated with TTP. (3) Afghan Taliban and TTP are not on one page particularly after Mullah Omar issued a directive last year asking TTP to desist from targeting military and civil targets in Pakistan and instead concentrating towards the critical final phase in Afghanistan. Hakeemullah didn’t heed to his advice. (4) Fazlullah is also not in good books of Afghan Taliban and according to reports Haqqani network mounted a deadly attack on his safe haven in Kunar recently in which he reportedly breathed his last.
(5) Pressure of Ulema and Mushaikh in Pakistan is mounting on TTP because of their fatwas declaring suicide attacks, terror attacks on mosques and against innocent people and enforcing Shariah by force against the spirit of Islam. They have appealed to the Taliban as well as to the government to hold peace talks and put an end to violence at the earliest. (6) Once the foreign troops exit Afghanistan in December 2014, TTP will get deprived of a cause to fight Pak security forces and thus will get isolated. (7) Targeted operation in Karachi, framing of national security and counter terrorism policies, toughening of anti-terror laws, establishment of special counterterrorism force in each province and anti-terrorist courts and improvement in intelligence network by the present government and above all its people-friendly policies will shrink the space for the terrorists. (8) TTP is fearful that repeat of 2009 may not recur. (9) Nawaz having firmly taken up drone case with the UN and Obama, TTP’s major grouse has been taken care of.
Over five weeks have lapsed since APC gave a green signal to the government to go ahead with peace talks but so far no breakthrough has been achieved. TTP spokesman Shahidullah Shahid complains the government has not made formal offer of talks and expressed his unawareness about backchannel contacts as claimed by the government. He also complained about the prejudice of media trying to fail the talks by distorting facts. The TTP also dissociated from three terror attacks in KP including the one on Church in Peshawar in which 86 Christians lost their lives. Stepped up attacks and also condition-based talks in fact were reasons for government’s skepticism about TTP’s intentions and its in-action.
The KP government has expressed serious concern over delay in talks and is holding federal government responsible for inaction. Imran Khan’s suggestion of opening of TTP’s office similar to the one opened by Afghan Taliban in Doha has evoked criticism from liberals. He feels that delay in commencement of talks is providing a chance to anti-peace elements within militant groups to carryout terror attacks in the name of TTP so as to sabotage peace talks. In response to government’s apprehensions about clash between pro-peace and anti-peace groups, the TTP has given an assurance that once mutually agreed ceasefire is announced; it would make sure that all the affiliated groups would abide by the agreement. TTP Shura now seems willing to negotiate without pre-conditions.
Lot of blood has flown in this foreign sponsored war on terror in which all the sufferers have been Pakistanis. Both sides should step up efforts to ceasefire, hold talks without conditions with open minds, nominate negotiators and guarantors, avoid spoilers and keep foreign interference at bay and strive to arrive at a negotiated settlement as soon as possible. It is good that Obama has assured of the US non-interference in peace process and help in its materialization. Once peace is restored, foremost requirement would be to isolate foreign terrorist groups, expel foreign terrorists of all hues, close Afghan refugee camps and send them back and rehabilitate misled home-grown militant groups into the mainstream.