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The Pakistani Taliban: An existential or a passing threat ?

Colonel Harinder Singh is Research Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detail profile.
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  • September 23, 2009

    Since the rise of the Tehrik-i-Taliban conglomerate comprising over thirteen tribal factions within its borders, Pakistan has been embroiled in a bloody insurgency threatening its very survival. Until as late as April this year, it seemed that the Pakistani establishment was struggling hard to survive the raging Taliban rebellion in the frontier provinces. Repeated peace deals with the Taliban leadership, as many as fourteen of them, reinforced the view that Pakistan clearly lacked the political and military will to fight them. But then in the past few months, the Pakistan military seems to have shown some resolve in undertaking a major offensive against the radical militant groups in the region. Besides the paramilitary component already deployed in the frontier provinces, the counterinsurgency operations have seen active participation by several army formations, including those from the eastern front and the Pakistan air force as well.

    Beginning with the Swat Valley, the military campaign was followed up in the form of a limited ground and air action in the provinces of North and South Waziristan. These were also supported by US precision strikes from across the Durand Line, with as many as 34 predator strikes having been executed so far during this year. The most significant outcome of these operations has been the killing of Baitullah Mehsud and the capture of nearly half a dozen of the 21 wanted Taliban leaders put on `flyer’ notice by the Pakistani authorities. In all, about 2000 Taliban fighters are reported to have been killed in six months of intense fighting in the frontier provinces, as against 330 fatalities suffered by the security forces.

    While many analysts assert that the Pakistan military has been successful in degrading the Taliban alliance, there are others who believe that the counterinsurgency campaign has not been as successful, and that the country continues to be beset by insurgency. Both positions could be exaggerated. This contradiction in assessment also prevails amongst political commentators in Pakistan. Kamran Shafi, a well known columnist and known critic of the military’s role in Pakistan, for a change lauds the performance of the Pakistan army in Swat, while another columnist Shafqat Ali writing in The Asian Age talks about the new strongholds being created by the Pakistani Taliban between the areas of Batkhela and Jalala along the Mardan-Swat highway (N45), in NWFP. Writing in the Indian Express, Haider Ali Hussain adds a new dimension and asserts that “a new and more virulent [Pakistani Taliban] faction is emerging in the volatile centre and south – which, if left unchallenged, has the potential to destabilize the nuclear armed country.” The recent suicide attack in the Shia town of Ustarzai in the district of Kohat, which killed 33 civilians and injured many more, is indicative of the continued violence in the region. With Taliban activities spreading to other parts of the country, as Haider Ali asserts, the security situation may become more and more tenuous in times to come and difficult to control.

    Given the recurring incidents of violence in the frontier provinces, one is increasingly tempted to question the efficacy of the military operations in turning around the security situation in Pakistan. More importantly, it needs to be ascertained, as to how much of it has been achieved as a consequence of concerted ground operations, and what could possibly be attributed to the Pakistan air force and the paramilitaries. The military effectiveness of the campaign also needs to be examined in light of the dubious relationship that the Pakistan army has enjoyed with radical forces in Pakistan. Their relationship has since long prevented the Pakistan army from undertaking decisive military action against blatant acts of terror, even when it was faced with serious threats to its internal stability. The so-called strategic role assigned to the jehadi elements including the Taliban as an `asset’ against India and for gaining `depth’ in Afghanistan, is well known.

    Perhaps, the first whiff of change in Pakistan’s approach came about in the aftermath of the November 2008 Mumbai attacks. Interestingly, at that time, the state of Pakistan too was gripped by a spate of terror attacks and suicide bombings. The prevailing security situation created enough pressures on the Pakistani establishment to act or perish. This pressure perhaps led to the larger consensus within the Pakistani establishment that regaining control over the Taliban alliance was critical to its survival. Having aligned with the United States in the global war against terror since 9/11, the Pakistani state had increasingly lost influence over militant outfits such as the LeT, JeM and HuA, which till recently had proactively backed the state in dealing with India and Afghanistan. And now, when some of these groups have graduated into a “wider social phenomenon” in Pakistan, isolating radical and extremist elements from mainstream politics could not be an easy task.

    Getting tough with these militant outfits required Pakistan’s military to make changes in the functioning of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). The process began with General Ashfaq Kiyani appointing Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha as the new DG ISI in late 2008. But its impact could not be seen on the ground, and soon 26/11 happened. This incident, and the diplomatic crisis that followed between the two countries, provided a window of opportunity to the Taliban alliance to strengthen its ideological resolve and motivation. Pakistani Taliban soon assumed a menacing posture and looked threateningly at Islamabad. The so-called `strategic asset’ had suddenly turned `toxic’ and this paved the way for a wider Pakistani military campaign in the NWFP.

    Initially, the Pakistan army seemed neither willing nor organised for a long drawn counterinsurgency campaign against the Taliban, as this entailed hard fighting in the affected areas of NWFP, FATA and Waziristan. Lack of political consensus for a large scale military intervention and insignificant public support meant that the campaign could further exacerbate the security situation in Pakistan. There was also the risk of the Pashtuns, otherwise not fighting the security forces in the frontier provinces, aligning with Baitullah Mehsud and Maulana Fazlullah. The fear of turning more and more Pashtuns into Taliban fighters dissuaded the military from taking any meaningful action. But then the Taliban’s move to project eastwards proved to be the `tipping point’. The situation could no longer be ignored, when their presence some sixty miles off Islamabad alarmed the Pakistani establishment and the international community beyond doubt.

    Soon, the Pakistan army was forced to embark upon Operation Rah-i-Rast with the sole aim of containing insurgency in the Swat districts. Though the initial offensive was limited to the Swat valley, the security forces taking advantage of the marginal public opinion gradually extended their operations into South Waziristan. Ever since, the Pakistan army has been making strong claims of having cleared several districts in Swat, but this is doubtful since the security forces still continue to fight isolated battles, most recently in the Malakand Division. While the Pakistan army may have been successful in clearing a few places, whether the Taliban alliance under Maulana Fazlullah has been convincingly defeated is an issue that needs to be questioned. There are even reports of several hundred Taliban cadres having shifted base from Swat to the adjoining districts and areas of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.

    While all this was happening in Swat, the Pakistan army reluctantly turned its attention to South Waziristan, where it well knew that it cannot stage a winning military campaign. The hostile terrain forced the military to plan its operations based on long range artillery and aerial strikes. Amidst these half hearted operations, the Americans were successful in eliminating Baitullah Mehsud. Between this perfunctory pushing back of the Tehrik-i-Taliban in the Swat region, and elimination of Baitullah Mehsud in South Waziristan, the Pakistan establishment now suddenly claimed to have gained an edge in its struggle against the Taliban. The death of Baitullah Mehsud did trigger off a succession struggle and a bit of disarray in the Tehrik-i-Taliban. Many in the alliance would have preferred the much calmer and shrewd Waliur Rehman as the successor to Mehsud, but then the more mercurial and younger Hakimullah Mehsud, reportedly an Al-Qaida candidate, had to be accommodated.

    Despite the ongoing power struggle, the situation on the ground clearly indicates that the Taliban alliance is surely a long way from being decimated, and this can only happen when the Pakistan army gets serious about its operations in North and South Waziristan. There are still significant swathes of support to the extremist cause in Pakistan, and the country as a whole remains ambivalent about the need for formulation of a comprehensive politico-military strategy to tackle the Taliban. And if the Al-Qaida and Afghan Taliban leadership continue to flourish in FATA and Waziristan, the situation can only worsen in times to come.

    Given that a military campaign in Waziristan is going to be much more difficult than the Swat operations, the Pakistan army may be keen on brokering a deal with the pro-government Taliban commanders. But then distinguishing between the pro-government groups and those hostile to the Pakistani cause is going to be a difficult task because of the fluidity of the Taliban phenomenon. Any serious attempt to neutralize the Pakistani Taliban is likely to impact upon Pakistan’s relationship with the Afghan Taliban, whose support it seriously needs for re-establishing its influence in Afghanistan. And if, “buying, renting or bribing Pashtun tribes becomes the centre piece of the American strategy in Afghanistan,” as Fareed Zakaria writes in The Indian Express, the Pakistani establishment may not like to be left behind in securing peace deals with the Pakistani Taliban. And if US troops plan to exit in an earlier time frame, the peace deals and the resulting chaos in Afghanistan will clearly run in favour of Pakistan. But till then, Pakistan has no option but to focus on cracking the Taliban alliance and its senior leadership in FATA and Waziristan.

    Pakistan’s ability to press home a multidimensional campaign against the radical forces, and contain domestic instability and economic downturn, is really suspect. It is well known that political stability continues to elude Pakistan because of a deeply fragmented polity and the sheer weakness of its civilian institutions. And while a recent IMF bailout helped Pakistan avoid bankruptcy, it will be some time before it shows signs of economic recovery, is able to meet its routine financial obligations, as also pay the cost of fighting the Taliban. Then how does one find a long term solution to the problem. The answer perhaps lies in targeting of the core leadership of Al-Qaida and Taliban, making serious attempts towards weaning away the good from the bad Taliban and, above all, de-radicalization of Pakistani society in the long term. Giving up the pressure could lead to severe consequences for Pakistan, and as Haider Ali Hussain predicts, we may soon see the virus afflicting the other provinces as well.

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