Pakistan goes its own pace on militants

Posted in Pakistan | 28-Apr-09 | Author: Syed Saleem Shahzad| Source: Asia Times

Taliban spokesman Muslim Khan talks to The Associated Press at his base in Imam Deri, Mingora, capital of Pakistan's troubled Swat Valley, April 17, 2009.

ISLAMABAD - When is a peace deal not a peace deal? The one signed between the Pakistani government and militants in the Swat area in North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) in February which imposed sharia law in return for a ceasefire could be such a deal.

The government said on Monday that at least 26 militants had been killed in Lower Dir, close to the Swat Valley, after two days of fighting in one of the districts covered by the sharia deal.

However, a Taliban spokesman in the area said the assault by paramilitary Frontier Corps forces was a "violation" of the deal. The Taliban at the weekend withdrew from neighboring Buner district just 96 kilometers from the capital Islamabad. They had briefly taken over the area.

"We don't have any intentions to spread out to Islamabad. We will contain ourselves up to the Swat Valley and want to present a model of true Islamic justice in Malakand Agency. We have pulled out all external Taliban elements from Buner and there is no reason for any military operation to be conducted now," Muslim Khan said in a statement.

Despite the latest developments, informed quarters have told Asia Times Online there will be no compromise on the Swat peace deal, despite pressure from Washington, and that other such deals might be made. Nevertheless, military operations will continue if the militants commit any violations.

United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in response to the troubles in Buner that the "Taliban advances pose an existential threat to the survival of Pakistan", yet the leaders in Islamabad appear relaxed.

What Pakistan is up to
Over the past eight months, Pakistan has developed a counter-insurgency policy in response to two categories of militants. These are the major players in the regional war which form the Afghan national resistance against foreign troops, and a minor segment in Pakistan which only aims to create chaos inside that country with the particular object of neutralizing Islamabad's support in the "war on terror".

The major regional players, including Taliban leader Mullah Omar, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, Mullah Bradar, Jalaluddin Haqqani and Anwarul Haq Mujahid, have never wanted to create instability in Pakistan. Islamabad believes that if tomorrow foreign armies were to leave Afghanistan, these people would dominate.

The minor groups, the Pakistani establishment analyzes, are not anti-Pakistan in the sense that they want to seize the state of Pakistan; they simply want to end Pakistan's collaboration with the US on the terror front.

These include Dr Ismail in Bajaur Agency, Mullah Nazir and his Ahmadzai Wazir tribe in South Waziristan and Hafiz Gul Bahadur in North Waziristan. The establishment wants to make ceasefire deals with these militants through direct and indirect tribal and non-tribal channels.

This would leave a small segment of militants, namely the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, including Baitullah Mehsud, Mullah Fazlullah of Swat, Abdul Hakeem Mehsud in Orakzai, Punjabi militants and Uzbek warlords. They aim to bring chaos to Pakistan over the "war on terror".

In the post-George W Bush era, Pakistan is able to work on the basis of ground realities rather than at the dictate of the US and the myths it wove about al-Qaeda and the Taliban. This forced Pakistan to sign on for entire campaigns, such as to hunt for high-profile targets such as Osama bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al-Zawarhiri and other Arabs and foreign elements. The new policy aims at the elimination of insurgents without any specific campaign.

Major General Tariq Khan, the Inspector General of the Frontier Corps (FC), is at the forefront of this. He spoke last week to Asia Times Online at the FC's headquarters in the historic Balahisar Fort in Peshawar, the capital of NWFP.

The Frontier Corps is trained and equipped by the Americans and has emerged in the past few years as a major counter-insurgency force that has been lauded by US army chief Admiral Mike Mullen for its role in Operation Lion Heart.

In this operation, the FC was involved in the Mohmand and Bajaur areas, while across the border in Afghanistan North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces were active in Kunar and Nooristan provinces. The aim was to clip the wings of the Taliban in the southeastern Afghan corridors all the way up to northeastern Kapisa province near the capital Kabul.

"Our position on the operation in Bajaur and Mohmand was against the violence which had suddenly erupted in Bajaur," said Khan. "The operation was not meant for al-Qaeda as al-Qaeda does not have any sizeable presence anywhere in the region. They are facilitators or leaders in some parts. During that operation in Bajaur and Mohmand, the insurgents who clashed with the government were killed, including the Arabs."

Khan added that from the perspective of the Pakistani forces, they were just fighting militants, whether Arabs or locals, and they fought them without any particular treatment. Khan said the military's policy had enabled Pakistan in the past eight months to gain ground and redeploy its forces in five tribal areas out of the seven from where they had been ejected by the militants.

Asia Times Online contacts maintain it is a common perception, especially among the top strategic quarters in Washington, that once the Pakistan army started mobilizing troops for these operations and NATO beefed up its presence in Kunar and Nooristan, the top leadership of al-Qaeda, including Bin Laden and Zawahiri, moved out of this region.

They are thought to have shifted to a nearby place, either deep inside the jungles of Nooristan on the Afghan side or somewhere around Chittral. Recently, Washington pressurized Pakistan to start a new joint campaign for the hunt of Bin Laden, but Pakistan refused to allow such an operation in which US special forces would take part.

Khan, however, does not believe Bin Laden or Zawahiri were in the region when Pakistani forces moved in. "I know many people speculate about that, but I would like them to share intelligence, and then we would love to hunt them."

In terms of Pakistan's counter-insurgency prioritizes, one of the world's most wanted persons - Pakistan Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud - rates low, although his network has caused major instability not only in NWFP but in the entire country. Some say he is the harbinger of the neo-Taliban's strength.

"Baitullah Mehsud is overrated," said Kahn. "Nobody has really gone into South Waziristan and sorted him out and when that happens, probably we will make a better assessment of his capacity. We have given him some importance in the area, and it has allowed him to acquire a kind of artificial leadership because whenever someone has trouble, they call him and he sends in some improvised-explosive-devise experts and a few rocket experts, who are Tajiks and Uzbeks.

"He also has a lot of funding, and he has got some training schools for suicide bombers, and he does some recruitment. He creates a military response or maneuver just by doing such explosions here and there and he opts to put pressure on the government to relieve the military pressure we are applying here," said Khan.

Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can be reached at