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Pak leadership divided over how to tackle Taliban

Mullah Fazlullah, the new head of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) wiles away his time in the remote Nooristan province of Afghanistan, under the protection of the Afghan Taliban.

world Updated: Nov 17, 2013 11:36 IST
Imtiaz Ahmad

Mullah Fazlullah, the new head of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) wiles away his time in the remote Nooristan province of Afghanistan, under the protection of the Afghan Taliban.

In his place, the TTP second in command, Khalid Haqqani, conducts the day to day affairs of the terror outfit from the tribal areas within Pakistan. This is because of the fear of US drone attacks, which have been remarkably successful at eliminating the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan’s leadership over the years.

“This is the thing that really scares them. To lose another leader. It will lessen their standing amongst their peers. Otherwise, they do not see the Pakistan government as a major obstacle,” says Aisha Siddiqa, a defence analyst.

The US drone attacks are possibly the only challenge that the TTP face as they expand their operations in Pakistan. In some parts of the country they are a parallel government, insists Talat Masood, a former general and a security analyst.

These activities include fighting against the Pakistan army in parts of the tribal areas, conducting suicide attacks and other bombings in targeted operations, murdering opponents and critics, running jirgas in many parts of the country where they administer justice and maintain law and order and raising funds through a string of kidnappings as well as bank robberies.

On ground, the Pakistani military has had limited success in its fight against the Taliban.

Analysts say that the army was not trained to fight Islamic militants. Many of the men fighting on the front suffer from low morale. Also, the conflict has entered its fourth year in what was once considered a short operation.

There are other factors that the army blames for its limited success. There is tension within the leadership – Kayani says that while the Afghan Taliban should be talked to, the TTP should be defeated. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif says that the government should also talk to the TTP. In fact, this was one of his policy statements ahead of taking office.

The other was advocating better relations with India.

The army insists that given time and the right political backing, it can defeat the TTP. “Inshallah, God Willing, we will defeat them,” promised General Parvez Kayani, at a recent military ceremony to mark Martyrs Day.

Army commanders claim that the TTP is already weakened and once it breaks up from within, it will be easier to defeat them.

For the army, the manner of the conflict – mass beheadings of soldiers and officers by the TTP, has left it with no desire for peace. The army high command feels that it they were to turn back, there may be anger within the ranks that may be hard to contain.

The military has little patience for those who support the TTP. And the recent statement by Jamaat-e-Islami leader Syed Munawwar Hasan that those fighting the TTP on behalf of US forces cannot be considered martyrs incensed it further.

Earlier there was a statement by Maulana Fazlur Rehman that even a dog killed by the US could be considered a martyr.

Then came the statement by Munawwar Hasan which riled the military leadership so much that it issued an unprecedented public statement against the Jamaat leader. General Kayani told journalists privately that the statement “made fun of those shaheeds killed while defending the country.”

While the Pakistan government and most major parties have publicly taken sides with the military, some have chosen to stay silent. This is seen as an endorsement for the TTP.

For its part, the Jamaat-e-Islami remains unrepentant, asking the army to stay out of politics. “The army should not comment on such issues. This is for the politicians and the parliament to decide,” says Liaquat Baloch, a JI spokesman.

This is a weak wicket for Prime Minister Sharif, who insists that the military play its constitutional role, nothing more.

“In many ways, Sharif is in a fix. For him, both what the army says and what the Jamaat says make sense,” comments Aisha Siddiqa.

Both the Jamaat-e-Islami and the Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf say that the way ahead is to talk to the TTP. However, they say this would only be possible if drone attacks come to an end. Earlier, Imran Khan has gone so far as to say that if he is elected to power, he would have the drones shot down.

Now, he says that the US must be “convinced” instead for peace in Pakistan. After the killing of Hakimullah Mehsud, Khan accused America of sabotaging peace in the country and even accused Washington of being behind the church bombing in Peshawar earlier this year to create unrest.

Such claims may not endear Imran to the military but it does being him closer to the TTP. Already the TTP has praised the Jamaat-e-Islami for its “principled” stand.

Imran Khan and the Jamaat-e-Islami are playing their politics. The talk of stopping drone attacks and blocking Nato supplies has won them votes in the past.

At the same time, Imran Khan also genuinely believes that the TTP are a misunderstood group who could be cajoled into mainstream politics. However, many oppose this view and call Khan a Taliban apologist.

Caught in between the rightists and the military is the government of Nawaz Sharif.

Interior minister Chaudhry Nisar, the man behind efforts to talk to the TTP, says that after the death of Hakimullah, the chances of resuming talks are bleak. Nisar says that while the government is open to talks, “the other side should also be willing to sit down and talk.” There are fears now that the TTP would instead step up its terrorism.

For Nawaz Sharif’s government, a deteriorating law and order situation will affect his government’s standing. In the past, such situations have led to the calling in of the army, a prospect that frightens Sharif.

“We have seen the army take advantage of such situations,” Ansar Abbasi, a journalist working for the Jang Group, said on Geo TV on Saturday.

It may also affect the economy of the country adversely, and put on hold the various plans the government has to revive the industrial sector.

Sharif may also focus more on internal politics which may mean putting talks with India on a back burner.

Advisors say that Sharif’s government is keen on wresting control from the army on issues like relations with India and also on controlling the country’s intelligence agencies, which in turn control outfits that operate within the country and outside. If the army has the upper hand, this would not be possible.

The general feeling is that once the US pulls out from Afghanistan in 2014, drone attacks will also come to an end.

That is what the US government seems to have also conveyed to Prime Minister Sharif who visited Washington in October.

That is also possibly why the TTP leadership is lying low. At the end of the day, the key to peace in Pakistan, ironically, remains very much with Washington.