Countering a perennial theme

February 23, 2014

Countering a perennial theme

Since the start of so-called ‘talks’ between the government and a committee nominated by Tehreek-e-Taliban (TTP), 175 people were killed in 40 attacks by the assorted militias directly or indirectly linked to the TTP and its patron al Qaeda. The talks’ saga was baffling even for the most optimistic observers.

While the TTP representatives were busy debating the merits of martyrdom accepted by suicide bombers, the militias continued to attack cinemas, restaurants, civilians and state officials. The most gruesome act carried out by TTP chapter of Mohmand Agency was the slaughter of 23 members of the Frontiers Corps (FC) last week. This barbarity was followed by the killing of a Major by militants near Peshawar causing public outrage.

Pakistan Army has fought four wars with India but never has it lost as many officers, soldiers and generals as it had during the past decade. The reluctance of the civilians and to some extent the Army to take on the TTP was linked to the clever strategy of Taliban and al Qaeda to enter into alliance with Pakistan’s deadly sectarian militias, which predate the US invasion of Afghanistan, thereby finding multiple bases in the country.

A Wall Street Journal report published in February 2014 stated that nearly one third of Karachi’s territory is under the influence of TTP Inc. Similarly, the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) bases in Punjab and Balochistan complicated the fate of a military operation in North Waziristan Agency (NWA). These strategic calculations resulted in the much-hyped 40 per cent chance of success articulated by Pakistan’s not-so-enigmatic politician Imran Khan.

This is the time for the military to re-think its support for the Afghan Taliban. But this would require a paradigm shift which cannot take place without civilian input and oversight. 

Quoting the former army chief Gen. Kayani, Khan and his party cadres popularised the narrative that a military option of fighting terrorists faced the risk of failure. It became embarrassing for the government as well as the armed forces. Ultimately, the former chief of the army had to clarify that he had been quoted out of context. In the meantime, unconfirmed reports of growing anger within the ‘ranks’ also worried the civilian and military leadership that appeasement was turning out to be costlier than anticipated.

An unannounced operation in North Waziristan has now been launched. In the first round on February 20, Mir Ali, Shawal and Datta Khel sub-districts of North Waziristan were bombarded by Pakistan Air Force reportedly killing over 40 militants. Prior to the strikes, the military admitted that over 100 soldiers had been killed by the TTP in the last few months.

 Is the doctrine of strategic depth dead?

For years, Pakistani state’s tolerance for the TTP predicated on the calculation that it could not annoy the Afghan Taliban due to the future transition in Afghanistan where Indian influence had to be countered. Tariq Ali, writing for the Guardian (Pakistan’s future is tied to the Taliban, February 4, 2014) stated: "However horrific the spate of recent bombings, the heart of the problem remains Afghanistan. It is not the case that the TTP and related networks are so powerful that their leaders cannot be found, captured, charged and punished. The fact is that, with the impending withdrawal of the US from Afghanistan, Pakistan’s intelligence service, the ISI, and its bosses in Pakistan cannot afford to offend the TTP too much. Islamabad has developed the theory of "strategic depth": keeping Afghanistan out of the hands of India’s allies as a defensive strategy against India."

While Tariq Ali’s well-known romance for Taliban as anti-imperial fighters is misplaced, he repeated what many analysts have been saying about the almost suicidal tolerance for the TTP.

In NWA, this nexus became the most dangerous. Under the overall stewardship of pro-Army Hafiz Gul Bahadur, the TTP operated alongside the most notable faction of Afghan Taliban i.e. Haqqani network. An operation in NWA could have annoyed the Haqqanis thereby disturbing the future calculations, which the intelligence agencies in Pakistan may have made with respect to post-Nato Afghanistan. The military strikes in NWA are indications that the old thinking may be changing within the military. Amir Mir (The News, February 20, 2014) citing analysts stated that "‘strategic depth’ will no longer be a consideration of the security establishment because of the fact that the Haqqanis are no more considered to be ‘strategic assets’, especially after they decided to throw their weight behind the TTP in the ongoing conflict instead of siding with the state of Pakistan."

It would be too early to predict the exact shift in the nature of strategic assessment that Pakistan’s military has made but business is not as usual. There is a view within the state that TTP is a means for Afghan Taliban to attain strategic depth within Pakistan increasing their leverage over the Pakistani state. Perhaps this is the time for the military to re-think its support for the Afghan Taliban. But this would require a paradigm shift which cannot take place without civilian input and oversight.

Is there a strategy?

While the civilian leadership and the military grapple with the extraordinary situation -- 8000 security personnel have been killed by the militants in the past few years -- the absence of a comprehensive strategy dogs the future of counter-terrorism operations. There is a draft of a security policy pending with the federal cabinet since December 2013. The contents remain classified but some leaks in the media spurred a debate a few weeks ago.

The overall thrust of the policy was encouraging as it finally showed that the state was willing to confront the issue. However, the delays have been worrying. No matter what the aims of Pakistani establishment may be in Afghanistan, a security policy simply cannot be dispensed given the widespread public discontentment and Pakistan’s image as a failing state. The policy gives National Counter Terrorism Authority (NACTA) a central role in operationalising the strategy and it would take months if not years before NACTA can emerge as a viable institution. This is where we have faltered for the last decade.

Beset and trapped by our own narratives (this is not our war; the US is to be blamed for terrorism; TTP is an Indian or CIA plant) the problem of extremism which breeds terror has been sidelined or at best ignored.

Further, the issues of state capacity to tackle terrorist methods have not been fully addressed. The police which has to be at the forefront of the counter-terrorism (CT) operations remains under-funded, ill-equipped, working under varying legal and institutional frameworks. Two provinces (Punjab, KP) have retained Police Order of 2002, while the other two (Balochistan, Sindh) have discarded it. The federal territories are even more ungoverned and this explains the rise of militant hideouts in Gilgit-Baltistan, Fata and other places. The legal system especially the courts and prosecution are unable to act as effective institutions for CT related matters. Without focusing on these areas, military operations can only have limited results.

 Countering extremism

Over the past few weeks, the most dangerous fallout of the talks-mantra has been increased legitimacy for the terrorist outfits. Political parties such as the PTI, the JI and to an extent even the PML-N, have justified peace through appeasement; and the media, out of fear, has given unprecedented space to the extremist mindset.

Maulana Aziz who fought against the state from the Red Mosque platform and whose cohorts killed army officials has been arguing on prime time TV as to why Pakistan’s constitution is un-Islamic. Al Qaeda thinks the same. Former generals have also been scaring the public of the evil designs of the US and how it is responsible for almost all terrorism in the country. There is little or no counter-narrative to these dominant voices. Political parties are divided and wary of the Islamist narratives that may result in their unpopularity at the polls. This defeatist mindset is not a new occurrence. In fact it is a perennial theme of Pakistani politics rooted in the manufactured Islamo-nationalist identity of the state.

Extremism does not always result in violence but it enhances the space for violent militias to function in a society. The current government had announced full implementation of laws against hate speech (especially the loudspeakers etc). Radical seminaries continue to flourish and grow in an unregulated policy environment. Addressing these realities of today’s Pakistan are as important as surgical strikes and destroying terrorist hideouts.

Assuming that the state is able to enforce its writ and defeat the terrorist outfits, is there a plan to reintegrate those who give up arms? Sadly, all of these questions mar the effectiveness of operations in a country where sympathy for terrorists is used as a political weapon and the prospect of civilian casualties overshadows the plight of terror-victims. The federal government will have to consider all these challenges while the army and police carry out operations against the militants.