Ever since the American-led ouster of the Taliban regime from Kabul in 2001, pro-Taliban tribals…
Ever since the American-led ouster of the Taliban regime from Kabul in 2001, pro-Taliban tribals in Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province (NWFP) have been stirred up to join their Pashtun brethren in Afghanistan, waging jihad against the Americans and the Karzai regime. The entire Province and particularly its tribal areas, which are administered by the Federal Government, have since become a hotbed of violence, terrorism and Islamist radicalism. These developments are now threatening the writ of the Pakistan Government along its disputed borders with neighbouring Afghanistan. These border regions are now, in fact, often referred to as the epicentre of global terrorism.
The blame for this state of affairs along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border lies primarily with successive Federal Governments in Pakistan, which chose to ignore education and economic development in the tribal areas. As a result, the people lead a lifestyle rooted in the nineteenth, rather than the twenty-first century. The tribals have also, for nearly three decades now, been armed with some of the most potent weapons and encouraged to join their Pashtun brethren across the Durand Line to support jihad in Afghanistan. This propensity to using tribals for achieving foreign policy objectives has, in fact, been a regular feature in Pakistani military strategy, ever since tribals were let loose on Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) in 1948. The entire quest of the Pakistani military establishment for ‘strategic depth’ in Afghanistan has been nothing more than an attempt to make Afghanistan a client state ruled by an internationally isolated medieval clique, the Taliban, which is totally dependent on Pakistan for its survival. But Pakistan is, now, paying the price for these policies.
Pakistan’s follies have been matched by American military ineptness, with General Tommy Franks making no effort to block exit routes for the Taliban and al Qaeda leadership, even as the Northern Alliance overran Kabul in 2001. The net result of this ineptitude was that, while the Taliban leadership, including its ‘Amir’ (chief) Mullah Mohammed Omar, took refuge in Balochistan, Taliban military commanders and their al Qaeda, Chechen and Uzbek allies melted into the rugged mountainous terrain of the NWFP. Some second ranking al Qaeda leaders have since been captured. But, the Taliban leadership under Mullah Omar remains intact. In the face of tremendous American pressure, the Pakistan Army moved into the tribal areas in 2004, but soon found that the tribals it had armed for jihad in Afghanistan were more than a handful to deal with. Successive ‘peace deals’ were signed with tribal leaders like Baitullah Mehsud and Faqir Mohammed between 2004 and 2006. These ‘deals’ required the tribals to end all support for ‘foreign militants’, in return for lifting of the blockade imposed by the Army and a pledge by the Government of Pakistan for large-scale economic assistance.
None of the peace agreements of the past has worked, with the tribal militants escalating terrorist attacks and suicide bombings across Pakistan after the siege of the Lal Masjid in Islamabad in July 2007. Around 300 Pashtun women students from the tribal areas are reported to have been killed in the assault on Lal Masjid. The tribals also declared war on the Pakistan army and terrorist strikes were undertaken on military installations, including units of the elite Special Services Group (SSG), once commanded by General Musharraf. The Pakistan Army had earlier got a bloody nose in its operations in the tribal areas. An estimated 1,564 armed forces’ personnel have been killed and 570 captured in operations in the NWFP between March 2004 and May 2008. There are also reports of significant desertions and refusals to fight by members of the armed forces. In the meantime, various pro-Taliban tribal groups within the country united under the banner of the Tehriq-e-Taliban e Pakistan, headed by Baitullah Mehsud, on December 14, 2007, on which date 40 pro-Taliban tribal leaders from all the Tribal Agencies and the Districts of Swat, Banu, Lakki Marwat, Dera Ismail Khan, Kohistan, Buner and the Malakand, met and decided to form a joint resistance movement. The Tehriq vowed to step up operations against NATO forces in Afghanistan and build up strong defences to take on Pakistani forces. A ten-day ultimatum was issued to the Pakistan Government to release the jailed Lal Masjid cleric, Maulana Abdul Aziz Ghazi, who had been incarcerated after he surrendered during the July 2007 assault in Islamabad.
Baitullah Mehsud offered a ceasefire on February 7, 2008, following what were evidently secret negotiations with the Army. An exhausted Army Chief, General Ashfaq Kiyani, seeking space to distance himself from the widely unpopular policies of General Pervez Musharraf, duly reciprocated, and an uneasy and tenuous ceasefire prevails in the tribal areas, disturbed occasionally by strikes by American assets on suspected Taliban and al Qaeda hideouts in the tribal areas. While American ire has been directed against the newly elected Government for pursuing what are believed to be policies of appeasing terrorism on Pakistani soil, the reality is that it is the Pakistan Army that is no longer willing to fight pro-Taliban tribals in the NWFP, even as it enriches its coffers with American aid. At the same time, however, another drama has been enacted in the picturesque tourist District of Swat, where the newly elected Awami National Party (ANP)-led Provincial Government has concluded yet another ‘peace deal’ with the leader of a longstanding fundamentalist and pro-Taliban outfit, the Tehriq-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi (TNSM) led by Maulana Fazlullah, popularly known as ‘Maulana Radio’, because he runs an illegal radio station demanding the implementation of Shariah law. The military had launched operations against ‘Maulana Radio’ in November 2007 after he took over the entire District, enforced rigid Shariah laws and blocked the strategic Karakoram Highway, linking Pakistan and China.
The 15 point ‘Peace Deal’ signed between the ANP Government and TNSM on May 21, 2008, bans private militias. The public display of weapons is forbidden. The TNSM has agreed that it will not interfere in the education of girls, that it will not attack barber shops and music parlours and will not prevent vaccination of children against polio (earlier obstructed as an ‘American plot’ to sterilize Muslim children). The TNSM has pledged to close down training centres for suicide bombers (thereby acknowledging such centres existed earlier) and that it will end manufacture of explosive devices. In return, that Government has accepted that Swat will be governed, not by Pakistani laws, but by Shariah law. Moreover, the impasse over the illegal Radio station has been resolved by Maulana Fazlullah nominally accepting the writ of the Pakistan Government and agreeing to seek Government permission to run the radio station –permission that can hardly be refused. This ‘peace deal’ was signed by a high-level ANP delegation and by representatives of Maulana Fazlullah. Just as the agreement was being signed, two girls’ schools, a picnic centre and a gas pipeline were blown up in Swat.
There is little scope for such agreements to succeed, either in preventing cross-border terrorist activities, or in reasserting the eroding writ of the Pakistan State in its volatile western border areas. The fundamental problem arises from the fact that no Pashtun leader will ever accept that his Afghan Taliban brethren are ‘foreign militants’. The Taliban leadership and cadres will, therefore, continue to receive haven and support in the tribal areas and, indeed, throughout the NWFP. Secondly, there is the problem of the so called ‘Kashmiri Mujahideen’ who entered the NWFP and were settled by the ISI in the Malakand Division and in some of the tribal areas, after the earthquake that struck Pakistan occupied Kashmir (PoK) in October 2005. Informed sources in the NWFP note that, when the earthquake struck in PoK, an estimated ten thousand jihadis, mostly comprising Pakistani Punjabis from groups like the Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) and the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT), collectively referred to as ‘Kashmir Mujahideen’, who were in camps in PoK, had to be moved into the NWFP, when NATO and western relief teams descended on PoK. These jihadis have made common cause with the Taliban and have been responsible for a number of terrorist attacks and suicide bombings, both within Pakistan (after the Lal Masjid siege) and in Afghanistan. They will not countenance any curbs on crossing into Afghanistan. It remains to be seen if, during negotiations for ‘peace deals’ in the tribal areas, the ISI succeeds in persuading the ‘Kashmir Mujahideen’ to leave the country’s western borders and return to POK and to pursue their original aim of waging jihad in J&K.
When asked whether the ceasefire he announced on February 7, 2008, was a prelude to his ending his jihad in Afghanistan, Baitullah Mehsud replied: “Islam does not recognize frontiers. Jihad in Afghanistan will continue”. Any ‘peace deal’ the NWFP Government or the Army concludes with Pashtun militant groups is set to fail, because Pashtuns on both sides of the Durand Line do not recognize the Durand Line as an international border which separates them. And all efforts by the Americans or others to persuade any Government in Afghanistan to recognize the legitimacy of the Durand Line as an international border will inevitably fail.
It remains to be seen for how long the Americans will continue to tolerate cross-border attacks on NATO forces in Afghanistan. A bruised Pakistan Army, in which Pashtuns constitute a significant element, is reluctant to face further disaffection and desertions in its ranks caused by fighting its kinsmen in the NWFP. Moreover, there is, as yet, no evidence to suggest that the Pakistan Army establishment has given up its zeal for ‘strategic depth’ in Afghanistan, or its propensity to use radical Islamist groups to achieve its strategic goals. For all practical purposes, however, the Durand Line no longer exists as a manageable international border. The writ of the Pakistani State in this entire region has been significantly eroded.
Where is Pakistan headed in the coming years, as it faces up to the blowback of past policies? In its Report of 2001, entitled “Global Trends 2015”, the US National Intelligence Council noted:
Pakistan will be more fractious, isolated and dependant on international financial institutions. Nascent democratic reforms will produce little change in the face of opposition from entrenched political and Islamic Parties. Further, domestic decline would benefit Islamic political activists, who may significantly increase their role in politics and alter the make up and cohesion of Pakistan’s military – once Pakistan’s most capable institution. In a climate of continuing domestic turmoil, the Central Government’s writ will probably be reduced to the Punjabi heartland and the economic hub of Karachi.
These observations, dating back more than seven years, are certainly prescient, and it will be interesting to observe how present developments along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border play out, against the backdrop of this scenario.