Path to Salvation?

Even as the Pakistan Army goes on an all-out offensive against home-grown militants, the insurgents themselves have stepped up their attacks on the Pakistani public.

Those who know must sneak a glance at it anytime they drive down Khyber Road, connecting the old city of Peshawar with the town's posh cantonment areas. From the outside, it looks no different from other brick buildings. Inside, however, it houses the northwestern command of the Pakistan's powerful Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). Yet this building, for decades an icon of the ISI's power, today is no longer standing, after a series of massive, vehicle-borne explosives were detonated at 6:45 on the morning of 13 November, killing 14 officials and guards along with three civilians. The blast was heard some 25 kilometres away.

The attack took place the day that US National Security Adviser James Jones arrived in Islamabad bearing what was described as "a letter from President Barack Obama". Addressed to Pakistan's political and military leadership, the communication included a demand to "do more" to counter al-Qaeda in the tribal belt along the Pakistan-Afghanistan frontier. There was also a timeframe included for this action: prior to the critical midterm elections in the US, in November 2010. Indeed, Washington clearly still needs the help of the ISI, despite having "deep suspicion" about the agency's alleged links with groups such as the Taliban.

The 13 November attack came almost a month after the Pakistan Army launched Operation Rah-e-Nijat ('Path to Salvation'), on 17 October, the military's latest offensive against the ongoing militancy. This action was an attempt to regain control of strongholds and training grounds for the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in areas occupied by the Mehsud tribe in South Waziristan. Contrary to initial predictions of a long, bloody fight, the military met with a number of swift successes, surprising many by taking control of some 90 percent of former militant-held areas. Losing South Waziristan as a stronghold has undoubtedly been extremely costly for the TTP, particularly following on the military's success in pushing out Taliban militants from the Swat Valley during the previous army undertaking, Operation Rah-e-Rast, in May.

Sources close to the TTP claim that the militants' retreat was less a hasty withdrawal than a tactical ploy. "We have made a strategic decision to let the military come deep inside the Mehsud territory, and then launch four-pronged attacks," said Qari Hussain Mehsud, senior TTP leader and its suicide-bombing mentor, told local media in mid-November. Yet with the military moving in as far as Makeen, seen as the TTP's headquarters, as Himal went to press the militants' promised coordinated attacks had yet to start. "The TTP has lost ground," says analyst Dilawar Wazir, based in Peshawar. "It simply cannot fight the military without territory under its control."

Beat a retreat
In fact, it now seems most likely that the top TTP hierarchy and foreign militants left their strongholds in South Waziristan prior to the start of Operation Rah-e-Nijat, moving to neighbouring North Waziristan, as well as the Kurram and Orakzai tribal agencies. As Wazir notes, such a retreat would appear to be detrimental to the TTP's long-term purposes – except perhaps insofar as survival was deemed a top priority. According to the military count, from 16 October through 17 November some 550 militants were killed, in addition to 56 soldiers, including two officers. The TTP denies both of these figures, suggesting that they lost "far fewer" casualties and killed far more soldiers. It is difficult to verify the figures, however, as neither side has granted the media access to the battle zone.

Yet despite what seems to have been the speedy successes of Operation Rah-e-Nijat, government and military officials seem to have misread at least part of the evolving situation. Well before the start of the army operation, the TTP leadership began leaving the area of army operation, but the intelligence agencies either did not pick up on their movement or did not share this information with the government. In particular, it is now becoming clear that a primary component of the militants' current plan is to undertake a series of suicide and car-bombings, targeting civilians in major urban areas in the hopes of forcing the state to halt the operation as a result of anti-government anger against the state's anti-militant policy. During the month following 16 October, a suicide or car-bomb attack took place every other day, killing more than 250 civilians. Of these attacks, 60 percent took place in NWFP, particularly in urban areas such as Peshawar (suffering seven of the 15 attacks, including one on 28 October that killed more than 120), Charsadda and Bannu.

Still, many are doubtful about this attempt to sow terror among the populace, and suggest that such an approach could backfire. Says retired Brigadier Muhammad Saad Khan, "This is a double-edged weapon: it could lead to anti-government sentiment among the public if these attacks are not stopped, or it could make the public develop more resilience against the Taliban." Khan also says that the militants' recent retreat runs counter to his understanding of military strategy of standing your ground.

Indeed, from the perspective of tribal dynamics in western Pakistan, one derives power from the territory under one's control – and inevitably, one's authority ebbs with any loss of ground. Sources close to the TTP suggest that a potential new militant plan would be simply to keep increasing their current reign of terror in and around Peshawar, in the hope that the government would agree to negotiations – during the course of which the TTP would try to take back its former territory in the Mehsud areas. Such a scenario looks likely if one looks at the military's preparations to guard their installations and offices inside the Peshawar garrison. In less than a two-kilometre radius, 18 new military checkpoints have been set up in the cantonment area, in addition to 16 soon-to-be created police checkpoints around Peshawar.

While the authorities can try to protect installations, it cannot protect the entire populace, and the TTP clearly thinks it can force the authorities to reverse the operation by inflicting civilian casualties in the days ahead. Indeed, the militants' attempts to psychologically break down the public in Peshawar and other NWFP cities looks as though it is meeting with some success. In Peshawar, some three-quarters of the normal traffic is today off of the roads, while restaurants and shopping centres are largely empty. With security concerns growing, international airlines have stopped operations from the city.

Meanwhile, US actions in both Pakistan and Afghanistan continue to create an independent challenge to Pakistani policy-makers. For instance, drone attacks, the expansion of the US Embassy in Islamabad, reports of the presence of personnel from the infamous Blackwater security firm (now renamed) and the presence of about 1000 diplomatic and other staff in Pakistan are all problematic. The Pakistani military is also unhappy about the restrictions placed on it in by recent US legislation that would give Pakistan USD 1.5 billion annually for the next five years.

The 28 October attack in Peshawar coincided with the three-day visit to Pakistan by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The United States appears to have arrived at the conclusion that its traditional close relations with the Pakistani military establishment, at the cost of public diplomacy, will not serve Washington's long-term interests. Hence, Clinton has become the first top American diplomat to spend time talking with the Pakistani public and media, attempting to listen to and argue with some of the perceptions and misperceptions that have cropped up within Pakistan regarding the US.

However, such changes in emphasis within US diplomacy appear to be playing into the hands of both militants and religious parties. For instance, the right-wing Jamaat-e-Islami and Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (Fazlur Rehman group) are using the excuse of a "stronger US presence" in Pakistan to increase the number of attacks in Pakistan's urban areas. "The situation will get better once our rulers have rid Pakistan of American presence," says Sabir Hussain Awan, the Jamaat-e-Islami leader in Peshawar. "The US needs to leave Pakistan and Afghanistan, and as long as it stays in the region these attacks will be difficult to stop – there is always a reaction to [US] action."

Not invincible
Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gillani says that the operation in Waziristan is meeting with success quicker than anticipated, that it could thus succeed and end sooner than expected. However, the winter season will almost certainly bring with it a lull in the campaign until spring, and the military will use this time to reinforce its positions in the towns that have thus far been captured. As such, the return of displaced persons – as of 10 November, comprising 48,620 families and approximately 350,000 individuals – to their homes is unlikely before June 2010. "We cannot allow the return of [the displaced] without putting a strong civil administration to hold the ground against the militants' return to their areas," a military source said recently on condition of anonymity.

Of potentially greater significance for the return of peace is how the military policy itself proceeds. The current deployment of over 45,000 troops looks set to be unsuccessful if the soldiers are not moved to Kurram and Orakzai, to chase out the fleeing TTP leaders and commanders. "You may have dislodged the TTP from the Mehsud areas, but they have found another place to stay. As long as we do not keep chasing the militants out we will not live in peace," said one intelligence official on condition of anonymity. A notable example of this is Swat Taliban chief Maulana Fazlullah, who Islamabad had earlier said was injured and would soon be arrested – but who instead stunned the military with a sudden phone call to a foreign radio journalist saying simply, "I reached Afghanistan safely." If the top militant leadership continues to evade the dragnet, any army success will prove very short-lived.

Beyond how to deal with Kurram and Orakzai, the larger issue of concern for many is the sheer lack of coordination between the US and Pakistan. US forces reportedly withdrew from checkpoints close to the Afghan-North Waziristan border days before the start of Operation Rah-e-Nijat. The perception in Pakistan is that by abandoning these checkpoints, the US is giving the fleeing militants safe passage into Afghanistan. Military experts say the US should have reinforced the border with Waziristan by deploying more soldiers when Pakistani forces were launching the major offensive. Indeed, a fundamental disagreement remains strong between Washington and Islamabad about how to move against the various militant groups. The Americans are pressing the Pakistani military to expand the offensive – not limiting it solely to anti-Pakistan militants. They would like Islamabad also to take on other groups fighting NATO and US forces in Afghanistan.

At the moment, however, the focus on Waziristan could come under serious threat if the ongoing disquiet over policy issues between President Asif Ali Zardari and Chief of Army Staff General Ashfaq Kayani continues. The military and the president differ on whether or not India is a threat to Pakistan. Additionally, the military is not happy that President Zardari is getting closer to Washington and Kabul – two major capitals with which the military always wanted direct control. Significantly, President Zardari also wanted to bring the ISI under civilian control, by putting it within the interior ministry, a move robustly rejected by the military. If these political faultlines deepen, as could easily happen, it would have a profound impact on the current operations against the militants in Waziristan.

~ Iqbal Khattak is bureau chief for the Daily Times in Peshawar.

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