That the Pakistani state was left with no option but to launch a military offensive in South Waziristan against one of the most dangerous, destructive and vicious factions of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) became amply clear after the spate of devastating terrorist attacks in Islamabad, Lahore and Peshawar in the first two weeks of October. But the presumption that a successful military operation in South Waziristan will once and for all end terrorism in Pakistan is quite off the mark. Operation Rah-e-Nijaat (path to deliverance) is only a necessary first step to deliver Pakistan from the scourge of terrorism. It is by no means sufficient to wipe out the existential threat that fanatical Islamism poses to stability and security of Pakistan. If the various assessments of the Islamists’ penetration in Pakistani society are anything to go by, then even if Op Rah-e-Nijaat is successful, it will take a decade or more of unrelenting and ruthless action by law enforcement and security agencies to douse the flames of jihadist terror in that country. On the other hand, failure of this operation could see Pakistan being reduced to cinder by the jihadist fires.
No doubt, breaking the back of the TTP’s Baitullah (or should we say, Hakimullah?) faction and denying it a safe haven in South Waziristan will certainly disrupt and even degrade the capability and capacity of this group to mount terror attacks in Pakistan’s heartland. Almost all the spectacular terror attacks in the past couple of years – Benazir’s assassination, the bombings of Marriot hotel in Islamabad and Pearl Continental in Peshawar, the attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore, the assault on the GHQ in Rawalpindi – have either been claimed by, or been traced back to, this group. The ‘Baitullah Mehsud network’, a phrase used by the Pakistan Army to distinguish it from other TTP factions, has been in the forefront of hitting the Pakistani state where it hurts the most by carrying out suicide bombings and launching fidayeen attacks against high-profile civilian and military targets. The actions of the ‘Baitullah Mehsud network’ have shaken to the core the confidence in the Pakistani state’s ability to fight terror and imposed a siege mentality on almost the entire country. So deep are the psychological wounds caused by this group that it has made many Pakistanis question the very survivability of their state.
Quite aside from its brutality and savagery, its close association with the al Qaeda or the presence of a large number of foreign fighters in its ranks (Uzbeks, Tajiks, Arabs, Chechens among others), what really distinguishes the ‘Baitullah Mehsud network’ from other TTP factions like that of Mullah Nazir, Hafiz Gul Bahadur, Maulana Sadiq Noor, etc., is both its extensive reach in Pakistan's hinterland as well as its choice of targets. Unlike the ‘Baitullah Mehsud network’ that uses its assets and linkages in Taliban or jihadist networks operating in Punjab, Sindh and NWFP to target government and military installations, and terrorise the civilian population, most other Pakistani Taliban warlords have primarily focussed on fighting a guerrilla war inside Afghanistan. It is for this reason that the Pakistan military and intelligence establishment believes that once they get rid of the Baitullah network, they will be able to end the wave of terror attacks inside Pakistan.
Other Pakistani Taliban groups have generally desisted from targeting Pakistani security forces unless forced to do so. Even when they have clashed with the Pakistan Army or the Frontier Corps, it has been in their own areas. Their objective has only been limited to maintaining their control in these areas and ensuring non-interference by Pakistani security forces in their movement to and from Afghanistan to fight the US-led NATO troops and their Afghan allies. They have never really targeted civilians, or carried out attacks in the cities of NWFP or Punjab. These warlords have kept their lines of communication open with Pakistani security agencies and are not in favour of taking on the Pakistan Army or destabilising the Pakistani state. In other words, these are the “good” Taliban”.
It is hardly surprising then that the Pakistan Army does not consider this lot of Islamists a threat to the state, not for the moment at least. If anything, the position taken by these groups fits in well with the objectives of the Pakistan Army in Afghanistan and makes them strategic assets of the Pakistani security forces. And even if there are any reservations about these groups, these will be ignored for the time being simply because they have so far taken a position of neutrality in the battle between the Baitullah Mehsud network and the Pakistan armed forces underway in South Waziristan. To move against these groups at this stage will open new fronts which the Pakistan Army will find impossible to handle with the current force levels that it has committed to Operation Rah-e-Nijaat. Additional forces can be made available only by drawing down troops from the eastern front with India, something that the Pakistan Army is so far not willing to even countenance.
In any case, an insurgency in a remote corner of the country which is aimed at the US-led international forces in Afghanistan and does not have direct fallout on the Pakistani hinterland is something that the Pakistan Army could live with indefinitely, or so they think. The reason why the other Taliban groups are not targeting Pakistan is tactical – opening a front against Pakistan could catch them in a nutcracker situation and fritter away the gains they have made against US troops in Afghanistan. However, the long term objective of all the Islamist groups – Afghan Taliban, al Qaeda, Pakistani Taliban, Punjabi Taliban, jihadist groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammad, Harkatul Mujahideen, etc. – is the same: the establishment of an Islamic emirate in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Central Asia and making this a base for taking on the West.
Unless Pakistan wants to become a jihadist state, sooner or later it will have to move against all these other Taliban groups which are not only operating from its soil but have also established their writ over large swathes of territory, replacing the Pakistani state in these areas. An offensive against the “good” Taliban will become an imperative if the US belies expectations of an early, and ignominious, withdrawal from Afghanistan, and decides to stay the course and clean up the nests of terror that exist in the Af-Pak region. Since these Pakistani Taliban groups are committed to launching attacks against foreign troops in Afghanistan, there will naturally be a lot of pressure on Pakistan from the US and other Western countries to extend the military operations against these groups, something that could lead to all the Islamists forging a common front against the Pakistani security forces.
Not only will Pakistan have to take on all sorts of Pakistani Taliban, it will also have to end the network of jihadists in provinces like Punjab and Sindh if it really wants to get rid of the Islamist menace. The longer that the Pakistani state delays action against jihadist infrastructure in Punjab and Sindh, the more difficult it will become to dismantle the nurseries of terror that are operating right under the nose, and by accounts with the connivance, of the Pakistani establishment. The fact is that groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba are becoming powerful by the day and could one day not too far in the future pose an even more potent threat to the existence of the Pakistani state than is posed by the Taliban.
As for the current wave of terror attacks, perhaps a successful Operation Rah-e-Nijaat will lead to a major reduction in these attacks. But in the short to medium term, it is entirely possible that the ‘Baitullah Mehsud network’ unleashes the full force of its terrorist assets against Pakistan both in retaliation to the military operation as well as in an effort to ease the pressure that is being mounted on its base in South Waziristan. In the event, one of three things could happen: one, public pressure could mount on the government to sue for peace with the Taliban; two, the attacks could stiffen the resolve of the government and the people to exterminate the terrorists no matter what the cost; and finally, there could be a mixed response of the neither-here-nor-there sort that Pakistan has adopted for so long. Whatever the response of the Pakistani state and society, one thing is clear: Pakistan has entered into what is going to be a very long and bloody phase in its history.