Waziristan or not, that is the question


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For a couple of months, the world has seen pictures of Pakistani men, women and children with flushed faces stuffed in buses, braving oppressive heat and winding roads. Their mission was to return to the scenic Swat Valley, known as the Switzerland of Pakistan. Newspaper headlines have read: ‘The long journey back home.’ The Pakistan military has been lauded and applauded for beating back the Taliban. Even the displacement of three million people in the process was forgiven, though criticised. The Pakistani people, after being under attack for at least two years from its most dangerous enemy yet – one that lies within – were celebrating victory against the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan.


All the while, the crucial question hung in the air unanswered, casting a dark shadow over the self-congratulatory military: Will the Taliban re-emerge? It appears they have.

There have been two spectacular attacks over the last few weeks. They came after the ‘end’ of the Swat military operation, and after Baitullah Mehsud’s was killed in a suspected drone attack. (Notably, Mehsud was not killed by the Pakistan army, but by the United States. None of the Taliban leadership was killed or apprehended in the Swat operation.)
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The most recent manifestation of the ‘return’ of the Pakistan Taliban is the audacious attack on the Religious Affairs Minister, Hamid Saeed Kazmi, in the federal capital earlier this month. A sniper on a motorbike opened fire at the minister’s car in broad daylight, chased him on a main road of Islamabad, and riddled the car with at least 25 bullets. The minister was injured, his driver killed and a police guard injured in the stunning assassination attempt.

However, Islamabad-based analyst, Farhan Bokhari of the Financial Times is less than shocked. ‘No one should be surprised,’ he says. ‘A military victory in Swat just took back the territory but the militants are still out there. The Pakistan army will have to go all the way.’

Bokhari also accredits the attack to the minister’s political beliefs. He points out that Kazmi was a vocal opponent of hardline Taliban militants. ‘He condemned suicide attacks,’ he says. ‘If you recall, Mufti Sarfraz Naeemi was assassinated for condemning suicide attacks.’ The Taliban do not stand for dissenting views even from those committed to Islamic teachings, as was Mufti Naeemi, who ran a madrassah in Lahore.

Before the attack on Kazmi, a suicide bomber sneaked into a police training centre in Mingora, Swat, on August 30 and detonated explosives, killing 16 new recruits and injuring four others. Targeting new police recruits has been a strategy of the Taliban as it demoralises young people who may be eager to serve in the security apparatus and discourages others from joining the forces.

Now if the Pakistani Taliban have regrouped and found a leader in the newly elected Hakeemullah Mehsud, is it a good time for the Pakistan military to launch a new offensive in Waziristan?

Defence analyst and retired General Talat Masood doubts if the Pakistan army would launch a massive ground operation in the Waziristan agencies. He claims, ‘For one, it would unite the entire FATA and the tribes would be up in arms against the state, even if they don’t like the Taliban. Secondly, winter is approaching and holding ground may be exacting on the army.’ General Masood predicts that the Pakistan army would instead keep the pressure on the Taliban by blocking their routes, hitting them with missiles, rockets and artillery shelling. The additional support from US drones would keep them unhinged. More and more Pakistani experts are acknowledging the usefulness of US drone missile attacks, but asserting that they remain unpopular with the local people.
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Zafar Hilaly, a former ambassador, answers the question of whether the Pakistan army should strike Waziristan now with a resounding ‘yes’.  But he makes an argument that is not very different from General Masood and cautions, ‘In Swat, the insurgents were an invading, external force. In Waziristan, the insurgents are from within. They are of the indigenous tribes. So if anything, the people of the area will fear the army.’

If the natives of Waziristan see the Pakistan military as the invading force, it would be a tougher battle to ‘win.’ Perhaps the way to woo the people would be through a hearts-and-minds campaign. Security expert, Rustam Shah, suggests a revision in the military tactic that would serve to alienate less people. ‘In Swat, there was too much reliance on the air force which resulted in massive displacement. It would do the army well to do less of that in Waziristan.’

As I said in the beginning of this peace, there were close to three million displaced as a result of the military offensive in Swat. According to latest reports, about a million have returned, leaving well over a million still in refugee status.

And those who have made the long journey home have not returned to much at all, as illustrated by this slideshow from The New York Times. The photographs on the website show what is meant by ‘normal life’ in Swat. What you see is distressing to say the least, and very far from being normal.

This post was first published on 15th September 2009 by dawn.com

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