A re-edited version of this was published as the cover story “Can Pakistan Be Saved?” in India Today…
By Hasan Zaidi in Karachi
The massive car bomb that ripped through the congested Meena Bazaar in Peshawar on October 28, leaving human limbs, charred torsos and bloodied women and children under rubble in its wake, was probably the starkest reminder to ordinary Pakistanis of what they are up against. The hellish scene of helter-skelter panic, bodies being carried to ambulances, wailing people in shock and raging fires as entire buildings collapsed, only drove home the point that the rules of engagement in Pakistan’s long-running war against militancy had changed.
“As things fall apart around us, it is a struggle to make sense of any of it,” wrote columnist Cyril Almeida in Dawn. “Hold your head or cover your face or curl up in the foetal position, escape is impossible.” Over 115 people – mostly women and children – perished that day, adding heavy numbers to the death toll from a wave of terrorist attacks (see box) that has surpassed 350 since the beginning of October alone. It came even as US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived in Islamabad for a 3-day visit to demonstrate American support in Pakistan’s dark hour, which many in the country continue to believe has been visited on the country precisely because of its alliance with US. It can of course only be speculated whether the worst attack on civilians so far had been timed to coincide with Ms. Clinton’s visit – especially since the Taliban and Al Qaeda subsequently disavowed any connection to it – but it must have fanned the flames of anxiety in capitals around the world about the capacity of Pakistan to withstand such relentless terror. Even Dawn’s editorial acknowledged that “the state is floundering in the face of an unprecedented wave of violence.”
Paradoxically, however, the Pakistani public has never been more committed to uprooting militancy from its soil, and most people view the spate of terror attacks as the predictable fallout of this commitment. As an air and ground military offensive pushes on in the remote tribal region of South Waziristan near Afghanistan, recent polls indicate that only 13 percent of the population oppose the army’s recently launched thrust into the area – codenamed Rah-i-Nijaat (Path of Deliverance) – to go after what it terms “the centre of gravity” of terrorism in Pakistan.
Around 30,000 troops are now deployed in South Waziristan alone, backed by heavy artillery, tanks, helicopter gunships and F-16 jets. The military has long claimed that the “roots of most terror attacks in the country and militancy in other areas” are in the Mehsud tribal area of the semi-autonomous agency, and claims that it is battling some 10,000 hardened fighters, including some 1,000-1,500 mostly Uzbek foreign militants, allied with the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) of Baitullah Mehsud. Baitullah was killed in a US drone attack on August 5 and who had been on top of Pakistan’s most wanted list for many years. Officials claim that the area serves as a refuge and training ground for militants from all over Pakistan – including the so-called ‘Punjabi Taliban’ – as well as Al Qaeda linked foreign militants.
The US also believes that Al Qaeda has set up base in parts of North and South Waziristan agencies since 2002, and since 2004 the CIA has been carrying out a continued campaign of targeted bombing against militant leaders through its unmanned drones. These drone attacks have intensified in the last two years to howls of protest from Pakistanis who feel they impinge on the country’s sovereignty. However, the Pakistan Army’s own attempts to deal with the brutal militancy in the area – which consolidated itself by wiping out an entire generation of traditional tribal leaders – have, before now, been abject failures.
The army’s first three forays into the region – in 2004, 2006 and in 2008 – all ended in humiliating climbdowns. Aside from last year, when the operation was aborted before it was even begun, the army suffered so heavily in 2004 and 2006 that it was forced to sue for peace and cut deals with the local warlords. Officials claim this time things will be different. “This time we have done our spade work,” says one senior army commander, “we have been preparing for this operation for three months and this time we have a national political consensus behind us. That is a big difference. The public too understands that these terrorists will strike out in desperation but that, if this scourge is to be stopped, it must be uprooted.”
The “spade work” involved cutting advance deals with other tribal warlords – such as Hafiz Gul Bahadur in North Waziristan and Maulvi Nazir of the Waziri tribe in South Waziristan, previously allied with the TTP – to remain neutral in the action. “The army realized after the problems of the previous operations that it could not afford to take on all the militants at the same time,” says the army source. “It is a tactical necessity and even the Americans now understand this.” It has also tried to isolate the Baitullah Mehsud group – now led by his successor Hakeemullah Mehsud – by allying for the time being with its rivals within the Mehsud tribe, such as the Abdullah Mehsud group and Turkistan Bhittani, whose focus has largely been against NATO forces in Afghanistan. They provide the army intelligence and have even raised local lashkars – informal military squads – in its support.
The largely successful Swat operation seems to have convinced the US that the Pakistan military’s strategy of isolating the hardcore from its less imminently threatening potential sympathizers may not be such a bad tactical move. “We convinced them that our priority had to be those who posed the most immediate danger to Pakistan,” explains the source with direct knowledge of discussions between the military and American interlocutors. “That is the only way we could get the public’s support and of the local populations. We have to take things a step at a time.” Pakistan has also apparently asked the US not to interfere to avoid any impression that this was not a Pakistani operation, to the point that the US administration has even been asked not to issue any statements of direct support.
Tactically, the army had moved towards the Mehsud area in a pincer movement from three directions and has blocked the strip of land separating the area from the Afghanistan border. It has also relied heavily this time on aerial bombardment to “soften up” their targets. This, as in the Swat operation before it, necessitated large-scale shifting of civilian populations from the area, which has led to a new growing humanitarian crisis. Camps established in Dera Ismail Khan, bordering the area, have seen a steady influx of poor, bedraggled families, many of whom have fled with nothing more than the clothes on their backs. Although the numbers of the internally displaced persons are nowhere near the magnitude seen earlier from the Malakand region – the estimate for the displaced is about 200,000 – the remoteness of the region and the military’s choking off of exit points before the launch of the operation, has meant there are many horror stories of families forced to travel by foot over rocky terrain to escape the bombing.
However, the “national consensus” over the operation has largely inured the military so far to the humanitarian fallout of the operation. This consensus was evident from the meeting on October 16 of the entire civilian leadership represented in parliament with the army and ISI chief, which gave the go-ahead to Operation Rah-i-Nijaat. According to insiders at the meeting, the ISI chief General Shuja Pasha told the gathering: “You cannot imagine how many people are on the hit list of terrorists… They are not only important personalities and politicians but some ordinary people in different professions.”
The meeting had come after a week of successive attacks in Islamabad, Peshawar, Rawalpindi, Kohat and Lahore, including an audacious fidayeen attack on the General Headquaters of the army itself on October 11 which led to a hostage situation lasting almost 20 hours. Although the operation in Waziristan was clearly in the works for longer, many see the attack on the GHQ as perhaps the last straw for the army.
Going into Waziristan, the army clearly believed that the aim of the militants was nothing less than destabilizing the entire country. But even the military was perhaps unprepared for what it has so far discovered. In Sherawangi, a small mud-hut village on top of a ridge surrounded by olive gardens captured by the army, it not only discovered the passport of Said Bahaji – one of reputed members of the infamous Hamburg Cell of 9/11 attacker Mohammad Atta – but also a full communications control room, connected to the world through satellite links and the internet. More and more, it seems Al Qaeda rather than the TTP is operationally in charge in the area. Pakistani officials feel that the terror attacks against “soft civilian targets” – such as the ones on the Peshawar bazaars, the World Food Programme offices in Islamabad and the threat against schools throughout Pakistan, are also indicative of the involvement of foreign planners, bent on creating chaos.
Incidentally, Pakistan has also indicated recovering Indian-made arms and medicines from some locations in South Waziristan and its interior minister has pointedly claimed that “We have solid evidence that not only in Balochistan but India is involved in almost every terrorist activity in Pakistan.” However, it is not clear whether such claims are simply political ripostes to Indian Home Minister Chidambaram’s rhetoric against Pakistan or something more substantial.
For an economy already reeling from the impact of the global recession, power shortages and high inflation, the current uncertainty about security has been nothing less than a death knell. Marketplaces and restaurants in most of Pakistan – except for Karachi, ironically spared an attack so far – wear a deserted look and the paranoia about militant attacks is almost palpable.
And as if matters were not critical enough, Pakistan’s politics is undergoing the sort of period of nervous doubt the short democratic history of the country has been replete with. At it’s centre is the growing distrust and disconnect between the establishment and the president, Asif Ali Zardari. The rumour mill is ripe with speculation that it is the beginning of the end for the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) Co-Chairman, especially after it looks increasingly unlikely that the controversial National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO) will be ratified by the parliament. Without that law in place, all of the corruption allegations against the president and his cronies – many of them in powerful positions in government now – could be reopened. The speculation centres around whether Zardari will be the only one to go or will take down the entire edifice of the government with him.
The establishment had always been distrustful of Zardari and some of his close associates because of their controversial – in its view “compromised” – past, but new fissures erupted recently over the American Kerry-Lugar Bill which promised US$7.5 billion as aid to Pakistan over the next 5 years for civilian projects alone. Pakistan’s ailing economy could definitely do with the influx of cash, but the army reacted with surprising public hostility to some of the language contained in the bill, which it claimed contained conditions that compromised national sovereignty and was insulting to it. Whatever the merits of the bill and the military’s opinion about it, what made matters worse was that the PPP government – with Zardari’s overt backing – initially ignored the military’s reservations and unreservedly welcomed the American assistance. The resulting brouhaha over the bill, played up by the media on instructions from the establishment and joined in by the opposition, managed to isolate Zardari as someone willing to compromise the country’s sovereignty. The fiasco over the NRO – widely perceived as a black law whitewashing official corruption – only compounded Zardari’s problems of image.
Many political pundits believe that President Zardari is slowly being isolated in a way that the only way out for him may be to step down or to accept remaining only as figure-head president. Sensing his weakness, he has attempted to patch matters up once again with opposition leader Nawaz Sharif, by offering to follow through on his long-forgotten promise of giving up the powers accumulated in the president’s office by his predecessor General Musharraf. It may not be enough: with the NRO gone, his opponents may move in for the kill through the recently restored independent judiciary. For his part, Sharif is finding it tricky to walk the line between playing into the hands of the establishment he distrusts on the one hand, and the desire of his own party for power on the other.
But everything is not bleak for the PPP government. For one, no serious political observer believes the army is interested in toppling the democratic process, at least for now. The conditions for military rule simply do not exist internationally and General Kayani in particular would not want to lose the public respect he has rebuilt for the military. Secondly, at least on the issue of the anti-militancy operation, there is complete unison of view between the military and the civilian government. The military has often complained in the past that political will to suffer the consequences of taking on the militants – many of them nurtured by the military itself in the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan and against India in Kashmir – was lacking. It claimed that politicians often did not have the stomach to face up to public opinion when casualties mounted or when political allies objected to action against their constituents. But even President Zardari recently told his party members that “there is no turning back…until the complete elimination of the militants.”
In fact, officials believe that the current spate of attacks in Pakistan is a temporary phenomenon, and say they were prepared for them. “It not only indicates the desperation of the militants to divert attention from Waziristan where they are on the run,” says a senior civilian security official, “they are also trying to make the public turn against the operation because of the carnage in Pakistan’s cities. It used to work in the past, but it’s not working this time.”
For it’s part the army claims the major part of the operation will be over in another month and a half. That is certainly what the hope is, since the bitterly cold winter will set in the area in December, which will make military operations much more difficult, especially against an enemy more used to the terrain and climate. The army has made a number of gains so far and faced much less resistance than they were expecting but whether they can continue to hold on to the captured towns and strategic terrain in the long term still remains to be seen.
No one, however, believes the military operation alone will be enough to clear militancy from the area. All that the operation hopes to do is to disrupt the militant networks enough for local tribes to reassert themselves and to create the space for some sort of a political process to work. Mindsets cultivated through decades of military policy and political opportunism will take more than the Rah-i-Nijaat to change.
But the success of the current army operation and any future reconstruction of society in the militancy-plagued areas is also dependent on a seriousness of focus. To achieve this the Pakistani political and military elite will need to set aside their petty squabbles over power and turf. Failure born out of distraction is simply not an option for Pakistan or the world.