Monday February 06, 2023

Denying safe havens

July 06, 2021

In the wake of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Afghan Taliban have increased their activities to gain control of Afghanistan’s rural districts and some provincial capitals. They are also preparing for a large-scale offensive in the northern districts where other ethnic groups reside.

There is a fear that after the complete withdrawal of US forces other elements like Al-Qaeda, ISIS, the Islamic State of Khorasan (ISK), TTP and LeJ etc might join hands to achieve their larger objective of forming a Sunni Theocratic Fundamentalist Islamic State.

In this situation, Pakistan risks a resurgence of violence sponsored from Afghanistan by anti-Pakistan forces to export extremism. These outfits will remain a problem for Pakistan until the future Afghan government reciprocates with a hand of friendship and both countries agree that their land will not be used for militancy in other countries. The Taliban in their previous stint in power also tried to export extremism to Pakistan through the TTP which forced the Pakistan government to introduce Shariah through parliament in Swat. Their later actions made the area a TTP sanctuary and military action had to be resorted to crush the insurgency. Similar operations were later launched in South and North Waziristan namely. The wounds of devastation and destruction as a result of these actions have still not healed completely, despite massive rehabilitation efforts.

In another development, the recent surge in radicalization amongst religious groups in Pakistan, with even tame Barelvi outfits like the TLP getting out of control resulting in a ban, is also a serious threat to stability. If a non-jihadi outfit like the TLP can bring the administration to its knees, then dealing with militant jihadi organizations after the US withdrawal from Afghanistan will pose a serious challenge. The outlawed Afghanistan based TTP has already started asserting itself in erstwhile Fata and in Balochistan by attacking army, paramilitary and police personnel along with numerous places like the Serena Hotel Quetta. In collaboration with other militant groups, the TTP has proved its ability to attack important targets in the past and it is feared it will try to do it again. The vulnerability of Pakistan to the TTP has been proved previously. The memories of girls’ schools being blown up, female education being declared un-Islamic, blasts at important buildings and installations and execution of hundreds of security and government officials, are still alive in the minds of the people and the security agencies.

Pakistan now risks a resurgence of militant violence in areas where the writ of the state is weak. The fencing of the western border of Pakistan and merger of Fata with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is a positive step. The extension of the police to the merged districts has given an advantage to the security forces because of the spread of the police force on the ground and its linkages with the local population. The police agencies of Special Branch (SB) and Counter Terrorism Department (CTD) will help in obtaining vital intelligence and carrying out local operations thus making it difficult for the TTP or its allies to operate in this area, and thereby reducing the burden on security agencies. However, the B areas of Balochistan and the tribal belt of Punjab in the districts of DG Khan and Rajanpur can become safe havens for the TTP and its allies along with other anti-state nationalist and ethnic groups.

In Balochistan, the police have control over only sixteen percent of the total area. Only six districts out of 33 – Quetta, Gwadar, Las-Bella, Naseerabad, Jaffarabad and Sohbatpur – are fully under police control while merely five percent of the bordering districts of Balochistan with Afghanistan – Zhob, Qila-Saifullah, Pasheen, Chaman, Noshki and Chaggi – have police presence. The police-controlled areas are mostly urban and are called A areas. The remaining 84 percent non-police controlled areas are known as B areas where the Baluch Levy is responsible for law and order.

The levies are ill-trained, ill-equipped, ill-disciplined and are under the influence of tribal chiefs. They have no system of intelligence collection and cannot conduct operations against terrorists or organized criminal gangs. This arrangement has burdened the army and paramilitary FC to tackle internal law and order situations. In 2008, the then provincial government of Balochistan rightly decided to merge the B areas into the A areas; this was reversed when the political government came into power. Another decision of converting four districts to A areas every year was taken a few years ago but due to political expediency and bureaucratic vested interests this was also not implemented, leaving Balochistan as a no-mans’ land of administration.

The merger of B areas into police-controlled A areas has a strong bearing on counterterrorism measures. The militant groups active in Balochistan – TTP, ISK, LeJ, BLA etc – are based in Afghanistan and Iran externally while they have their safe havens internally in the B areas of Balochistan. This is the right time to adopt immediate steps to convert the B areas into A to cope with the emerging situation in Afghanistan and the looming threat of terror in Pakistan.

The tribal area of Punjab constitutes about 40 percent of D G Khan and Rajanpur districts. It has been a haven for terrorists, criminals and proclaimed offenders. Recent operations against the Laddi gang of criminals with the help of the Rangers were carried out in this tribal area of Punjab. This area is inhabited by Mazari, Dareshak, Gurchani, Leghari, Khosa, Buzdar, Qaisrani and Lund tribes whose sardars have a vested interest in keeping the special status of the area and have complete grip over the area. The levies and Border Military Police (BMP) are responsible for maintenance of law and order but as in the case of the Balochistan Levies they do not have the capacity to conduct operations or collect intelligence against ordinary criminals. Tackling terrorists is simply beyond their capability. Any attempt to reform these organizations in the present tribal setup of administration would prove to be a futile effort. Thus, to meet the post US withdrawal challenges, a complete overhaul of the special status of D G Khan and Rajanpur is urgently required to bring them at par with other areas of Punjab.

A PM’s directive of 2003 for the tribal area of Punjab still stands according to which “the entire districts of Rajanpur and D G Khan be made police areas by extending police jurisdiction to these areas. There should be no Levies or BMP working in these areas for policing.” This directive has still not been implemented.

To merge the B areas of Balochistan and tribal areas of Punjab with settled areas, no constitutional amendment or enactment of any legislation is required as was in the case of Fata. A simple executive order will suffice. Such action has become imperative due to the challenges arising from the developments in Afghanistan. This will also help improve the condition of the people living in these areas with improvement in the provision of facilities of education, health, justice intuitions, infrastructure and economic opportunities as a result of merger.

The proposed administrative changes to improve governance in border areas will strengthen Pakistan’s ability to face any onslaught of the future developments. The decision of the Pakistan government not to support militant/jihadi elements with weapons and manpower will also make a difference in achieving peace in the region.

The writer is a security analyst, a retired inspector-general of police and former caretaker home minister Punjab.