Bajaur Deja Vu

The last time Pakistan had declared victory against the Taliban in the Bajaur tribal region overlooking Kunar province in Afghanistan was in spring 2009. Last month, a similar claim has been made again. What the 'fall of Bajaur' means for Pakistan and the Taliban?

Bajaur lies at a strategic junction connecting Afghanistan's eastern Kunar province with Pakistan's mainland, providing an important supply route for both the foreign and local militants fighting the US-led coalition forces in Afghanistan and government troops in Pakistan. This tribal district is home to Maulvi Faqir Muhammad, the militant Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) deputy chief, and borders Dir district to link with the Swat Valley where militancy forced military offensives last year that triggered the internal displacement of over two million residents from Swat itself and neighbouring Buner and Lower Dir districts.

"The thing is they [militants] have lost their support. They´ve lost the terrain where they could operate and they´ve lost the population, who they were coercing. So they are not really effective anymore," the chief operation commander Major-General Tariq Khan told reporters on March 2 after his paramilitary force, backed by regular troops, captured Damadola which served as the Taliban's "nerve centre" in Bajaur.

The United States has long suspected that al-Qaeda network chief Osama bin Laden and his deputy Dr Ayman al-Zawahiri may have been hiding somewhere in the border regions of Kunar and Bajaur. And a missile strike from CIA-operated unmanned spy plane in Damadola in 2006 was aimed at the No.2 of al-Qaeda. However, he escaped the attack unhurt.

Victory in Bajaur comes against the backdrop of victory in Swat where Islamabad through the Operation Rah-e-Rast ('Operation Right Path') military campaign successfully wrested back control of the district—once known as "Pakistan's Switzerland" where foreign and domestic tourists used to enjoy summers—from the Taliban last year. In the absence of real and lasting control over Bajaur, it would be difficult to keep militancy away from Swat for good. However, the "defeat" for the Taliban in Bajaur means the militants lost a town with the closest proximity to Swat for now.

Damadola: Army troops display weapons and other accessories seized from militants during the operation in Bajaur
Photos: Iqbal Khattak

Bajaur victory will prove short-lived this time again if coalition forces do not sweep Kunar province and plug holes to deny any soft cross-border movement by militants. Islamabad alleges Kabul has no plans to tighten its control over the border areas overlooking Pakistan's Bajaur area. It were the Afghan militants who fought the Pakistan army more violently than Pakistani Taliban.

Analysts and internally displaced people from Bajaur wonder if this second claim of victory will have as short a life as the previous declaration. Taking the ground back from the Taliban had not meant all foot soldiers were arrested or killed, nor had the top leadership been among the arrested militants. "I would give a rough estimate that about 25 percent (militants) must have gone across the border, another 10 or 15 percent might have melted back into areas of Swat where they had come from," says Gen Tariq, chief of paramilitary Frontier Corps.

The general in charge of operation insists the Taliban were defeated, though he admits that up to 40 percent of the militant leadership was able to flee – including top commander Faqir Mohammad, who is believed to have escaped to the southern part of the Mohmand tribal district that borders Bajaur.

The belief proved right. Attack helicopters were used to pound a heavily-fortified centre of militants in Mohmand two days later after an intelligence tip-off. "It would be a miracle if he (Faqir) escaped the attack," Pakistan's Interior Minister Rehman Malik said in Peshawar on March 6. However, there has been no conclusive evidence to pronounce the death of Bajaur Taliban chief.
Both the US and Pakistan celebrated the long due success they achieved in August last year killing the TTP chief, Baitullah Mehsud, in a drone attack in South Waziristan. If the news of death of Faqir along with Afghan commander Qari Ziaur Rehman is confirmed, this single deadly attack would be a major blow to the TTP.

A group of experts have long been advocating simultaneous anti-Taliban offensives in militancy-infested areas. However, the "India-centric" military appears reluctant to engage the militants simultaneously everywhere, reasoning that this strategy would spread the army thin and risk the security of the eastern border with India. Army Chief Gen. Ashfaq Kayani is straight-forward when he talks about "threats" on the eastern border.

Simultaneous action against Taliban, according to the experts, is the only effective way to deal with the militancy. "If you engage the militants in Bajaur and there is no similar plan for neighbouring Mohmand region the Taliban will easily slip into the southern neighbourhood. The same is the case with Khyber tribal region. If you are taking action there and neighbouring Orakzai [tribal district] offers unhindered access then the action in Khyber will not be result-oriented. If there is action being taken in both districts simultaneously it works against the militants."

But what appears from the present strategy of the military is that key militant groups are losing control of their areas. Mullah Fazlullah lost Swat; now Faqir Muhammad met similar fate in Bajaur. Tariq Afridi-led group was dislodged in Darra Adamkhel, 35 kilometres south of Peshawar, while TTP was displaced from birthplace in South Waziristan where Operation Rah-e-Nijat ('Operation Path to Salvation') led to the return of vast swathe of Mehsud areas to the government writ. The strategy, however, did not interrupt the militants' ability to strike. In a series of suicide attacks on police stations in Balakot, Mansehra, Bannu and Karak districts proved that the Taliban remain a formidable enemy to reckon with. Their ability to hit a target as deep as Lahore city in the Punjab province was demonstrated on 8 March, reducing the office of Special Investigation Unit of the Federal Investigation Agency to ground led to the deaths of 11 persons and injuries to over 50 people.

It has previously been the case that following successful military operations, militancy relapsed in South Waziristan and Bajaur. The military is worried that poor capacity and the inability of civil administration to take control of the region will lead to the re-emergence of militancy as it had in 2008 and 2009. In May 2008, a group of embedded journalists with the Pakistani army took a trip to Spinkay Raghzai town in South Waziristan. Seven days later, the same group of journalists was led by the Taliban to visit the very same town after the military moved on. "That is what we face after we withdraw," a senior military commander commented.

The same happened in Bajaur last year. Weeks after the declaration of victory against the Taliban, the writ of the government disappeared and the militants were roaming around again. The capacity of civil administration does not match the Taliban ability to challenge the state or violate the international border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. It is for this reason that the military has not handed over control of Swat back to the civil administration.

Moving to Orakzai and the Tirah Valley of Khyber tribal district bordering Peshawar is a welcome announcement from Gen Tariq after completing the defeat of the militants in Bajaur. However, if Bajaur returns to Taliban control, the victory in Orakzai or inaccessible Tirah Valley will only briefly provide headlines in the media and Pakistan's problem will not go away.

Iqbal Khattak is a contributing editor to this magazine

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