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Pak's success against Taliban depends on Sharif's ties with the army

ht view Updated: Mar 05, 2014 23:32 IST
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With the announcement of one-month ceasefire by the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) on March 1, the “amalgam” policy of continuing talks with military operations against the TTP, announced in the National Assembly of Pakistan on February 26 by the government, seems to have made some headway.

This time the ceasefire announcement has been endorsed also by the leader of the Mohmand chapter of the TTP, Umar Khorastani, whose disclosure about the killing of 23 Frontier Corps (FC) soldiers held captive since 2010 on February 17 had stymied their talks with the government’s recently appointed four-member committee of interlocutors.

On February 18, the army issued a press statement assailing this “highly provocative act”, denying the TTP’s accusation of the custodial killing of their men as “baseless”. Army chief Raheel Sharif visited FC headquarters, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, on February 21. The Inter-Services Press Relations (ISPR) declared that the “military is battle hardened and fully capable to counter any internal or external threat posed to the integrity and sovereignty of the country”. The army has, meanwhile, resorted to selective aerial bombardment of militant hideouts in Mir Ali, the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), and Hangu.

The civilian government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has been trying to make the best of a bad bargain to dispel the impression of weakness, confusion or non-performance while retaining the high moral ground, showing enough patience before resorting to limited military action by the Pakistan army in North Waziristan.

It is almost 10 years since the Pakistan army entered FATA. Thirteen abortive peace accords with different TTP factions later, it is by no means certain that the latest military offensive will be successful. The army’s previous attempts to braid the TTP had mixed results. It suffered initial reverses in 2003-04. The morale of forces dipped to an all-time low.

More wholehearted military action was taken in Swat in 2009, with strength in numbers. Larger formations hitherto reserved for facing the Indian threat from the eastern border (numbering more than 120,000) were brought in to bolster counter-insurgency (COIN) capabilities in FATA and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. However, the operations were not continued long enough.

This is because the army continually had to look over its shoulder to contain the deleterious impact of the penetration of radical Islamic ideas within its ranks. Not only would it have to maintain its image as “defender of Islam”, it had to display necessary clout through effective “clear, hold and build” operations.

Since 2001, the army has suffered 12,829 casualties since it began fighting the Taliban, including 3,097 killed. The number of army officers killed has been estimated at 194 — an unusually high ratio of officers — one for every 16 soldiers killed. The tribal militias were well-armed. Every time they were confronted in a major operation, they retreated to the hills or across the border into Afghanistan, living to fight another day.

If uneasy peace prevailed in Waziristan, trouble erupted in Bajaur, Mohmand or Orakzai. Swat was cleared but Maulana Fazlullah escaped to Kunar, in Afghanistan. He continued launching attacks against security forces from there. After Hakimullah Mehsud’s killing in an American drone attack in November 2013, Fazlullah became the new chief of the TTP, albeit after some infighting for succession. The recent killing of the TTP’s interim leader, Asmatullah Shaheen, indicates this faction fight may have intensified, though the TTP accused the ISI and the CIA for the incident.

The Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz)’s political opponents have quickly welcomed this temporary ceasefire. Though the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (Altaf) called for an army takeover to sort out the Taliban, Imran Khan withdrew his boycott of Nato supply routes through Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and supported talks with the “good” Taliban.

The TTP’s ceasefire call is a defensive, tactical manoeuvre that may not last. A consensus may develop now for fresh all-party consultations. Notwithstanding that, there would seem to be a slow realisation in the country’s powerful military-bureaucratic establishment, as also in civil society, that Pakistan’s counter-terrorism policy must show some muscle. Violence and terrorism must not be tolerated. Dialogue with the TTP must be within the Constitutional framework. The primacy of the State must be asserted over all territory. Also, as Pakistan faces different types of terrorism — religious, ethnic, sectarian and nationalist — different strategies must be employed to deal with them.

Civil society in Pakistan may eventually have to brace itself for reluctant and limited military action by the army in FATA and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa against recalcitrant TTP factions. This would no doubt expose institutions of the State to reprisals from the Taliban as also bring concomitant misery in the form of more internally displaced civilians from these areas but it seems this decision is being taken as a calculated move to demonstrate the writ of the state at long last.

The strategy that emerges will have to factor in the situation in Afghanistan as US/International Security Assistance Force troops withdraw in 2014. Both the army and the TTP seem on board to continue providing a safe haven to the Afghan Taliban during this period. However, an agreement on the mechanics of peace making and talks on power sharing with the Afghan Taliban have proved elusive. This may complicate the situation further as the army is forced to confront the TTP in FATA.

The army leadership and Pakistan’s civilian politicians led by Nawaz Sharif appear to be on the same page on biting the bullet but how long they continue to respond in unison will determine whether the serious threat to the State from Islamic radicals can be effectively tackled.

Rana Banerji is former special secretary, Cabinet Secretariat
The views expressed by the author are personal

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