Another D-Day for Pakistan over militants
KARACHI - With the Taliban believed to have launched all of their fighters into Afghanistan and with tribal militants led by Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud faced off against the Pakistani armed forces, the issue becomes just how far Washington and its allies will be prepared to expand the war theater.
In a significant move, the Pakistani security forces last week blocked the main artery into the South Waziristan tribal area on the border with Afghanistan. This followed fighters loyal to Mehsud, an al-Qaeda ally who leads Taliban militants in Pakistan, setting up checkposts along the road to exert control over the region.
The Taliban need unhindered movement in this area so they can keep supply lines to Afghanistan open, as well as move men across the border. It is expected that longer-serving Taliban will be replaced by fresh blood in the first week of July and from August onwards there will only be sporadic inflows of new men ahead of the winter lull in fighting.
The militants' aim has been to keep Pakistan and its Western allies fully engaged, and in doing so they have forced them to abandon their original plan. This centered on efforts to make inroads through local political parties into the Taliban's rank and file, in the process isolating hardline elements such as foreigners belonging to al-Qaeda, Uzbeks and local militants like Mehsud.
These isolated elements were then to be "chopped off" through special operations by US-trained Pakistani units and regional jirgas (councils) would then be convened for moderate elements to attempt to find a political solution to the Afghan conflict.
The jirgas were first scheduled for last November, but due to the military operations in Swat Valley in North-West Frontier Province and their cascading effects in the tribal areas, they were postponed to January, then February, before being shelved indefinitely.
Much of the unrest was fueled by al-Qaeda's "chaos strategy", which went into full swing after the Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) operation last July when security forces stormed the hardline pro-Taliban mosque in Islamabad. By some reports, since then, Pakistan has had more suicide attacks than any other country in the world, including Iraq and Afghanistan.
This year, the al-Qaeda attacks reached the eastern city of Lahore, which until now has been largely left alone since conflict began in the region after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.
The poor security situation and uncertainty leading up to the parliamentary elections in February have caused a capital flight from Pakistan, and its rupee currency has fallen 13% against the US dollar since January.
"The capital flight ... continues from Pakistan as investors have parked $500 to $600 million in the UAE [United Arab Emirates] and other Middle East countries through exchange companies during last few months," Pakistan's The News International reported.
The trend is expected to continue, and last week the governor of the central bank warned exchange companies of stern action if they are caught transferring large amounts of money out of the country.
This situation is exacerbated by an impending political crisis. The two main parties in the ruling coalition, the Pakistan People's Party and the Pakistan Muslim League of Nawaz Sharif (PML-N) have failed to reach an agreement on the reinstatement of judges sacked last year by President Pervez Musharraf. The PML-N was due to decide on Monday whether or not to order its nine cabinet members to resign.
Against this backdrop, Islamabad has to consider how far it can go against people such as Mehsud in the context of the "war on terror".
Operations against militants have faced many snags since the start of the year. The first two months were spent in preparation for the general elections, for which a peaceful atmosphere was required. The formation of the new government took another few months, and then the militants played a smart card by offering ceasefire agreements with the new administration.
The government jumped at the opportunity, seeing it as a chance to promote moderates and isolate hardliners. However, the move simply boiled down to a chance for both sides to gain time. As soon as the militants had completed the launch of troops into Afghanistan, they broke the deals. And Mehsud's latest move to put his men in forward positions is a bid to deepen Pakistan's overall political and economic dilemma and break its will for any military operations in the tribal areas.
Sitting in Kabul, the international coalition believes that without the backup of the mountains between Pakistan and Afghanistan's tribal areas, the Taliban insurgency would be nothing more than a tribal rebellion which could easily be quelled through "give-and-take" deals.
It is crucial therefore that the Taliban's and al-Qaeda's grip in the Pakistani tribal areas is broken. All efforts to date have failed. The US and its allies might now have to expand the war to make this happen.
Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can be reached at [email protected]