Punishing Baitullah Mehsud

August 5, 2009

Pakistan’s military campaign against Baitullah Mehsud in South Waziristan has been seen very much as a punitive mission - and that has just been forcefully highlighted by reports that the Pakistani Taliban leader’s wife was killed in a missile strike. A relative said that Mehsud’s second wife had been killed when a U.S. drone fired missiles into her father’s house in the village of Makeen. He said four children were among the wounded.

The Pakistan government in June ordered an offensive in South Waziristan after Mehsud was accused of masterminding a string of attacks inside Pakistan, including the assassination of Benazir Bhutto in 2007. So far though, that offensive has been dominated by bombardments with air raids and medium-range artillery, while a full-blown ground offensive has yet to materialise. Attacks by U.S. drones have also increased, fuelling speculation that the CIA-operated missile strikes, though condemned by Islamabad, are being coordinated with Pakistan’s own military operations.

So what is the overall plan for South Waziristan?

The delay in launching a full-blown offensive has triggered a raft of media reports, including in Britain’s Daily Telegraph, that Pakistan had put off launching a ground assault against Mehsud due to secret talks between him and security forces.

However, Pakistani correspondent Rahumullah Yusufzai quoted a high-ranking military official as dismissing the reports, saying the time to seek a truce with Mehsud was past. He quoted the army officer as saying the reports were being spread by pro-militant sources to create confusion, and that the army would carry out a major offensive against Mehsud at the time of its choice.

Other analysts attribute the delay to a desire on the part of the Pakistan Army to lower the risk of taking heavy casualties by going in prematurely to a stronghold which is expected to be heavily defended, and to a need to complete operations following an offensive against the Taliban in Swat.

But the discussion about nature of the military offensive to some extent obscures what is perhaps a more interesting debate about its objectives. The offensive is being conducted under the Raj-era Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR) 21, which provides for collective punishment of a tribe in the event of its members threatening the authorities. That notion of a punitive expedition is quite different from the military offensive in Swat which was designed not only to oust the Pakistani Taliban but to create the conditions for civil authorities to eventually step in and restore order. The objective in South Waziristan would presumably be to punish Mehsud and his tribe to such an extent that it never again threatened the Pakistani state.

What is less clear is how that objective, if achieved, would influence other militants holed up in Pakistan’s tribal areas, including those linked to al Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban. Would the Mehsud tribe force foreign fighters to leave? Where would it leave the Afghan Taliban?

Nor does it carry a promise of a long-term solution to governing the tribal areas. Joshua Foust at Registan.net argues that the antiquated security framework used in the tribal areas condemns them to  “a cycle of conflicts, retributions and ceasefires” rather than integrating them into Pakistan, while the collective punishment provisions in the FCR “are, technically, violating international law”.

The days when the British Raj could send an Army of Retribution to raze Kabul after its troops were massacred in 19th century Afghanistan have long gone.  Nowadays British Foreign Minister David Miliband is more likely to stress the need to talk to ”moderate” Taliban and win hearts and minds in Afghanistan with economic development. “We will not force the Taliban to surrender just through force of arms and overwhelming might,” he said last month in Brussels.

So it’s rather curious that the vengeful spirit of the Raj has survived through the Frontier Crimes Regulation on the Pakistan side of the border with its stress on  punishment over persuasion.  And it will be interesting also to assess who has a better grasp of how to deal with the Taliban – the Pakistanis on one side of the border, or the U.S.-led allies on the other.

(File photos: Predator drone; tribesmen in Pakistan)

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