Pakistan: Now or Never?
Perspectives on Pakistan
The obvious question to ask about the apparent death of Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud in a U.S. drone attack (apart from the question of proving his death) is what, or who, is next? Does the Pakistan Army still go into South Waziristan to fight the Taliban, or does it consider it “mission accomplished”? And after apparently eliminating a militant leader who had focused on targetting Pakistan, will it now go after other militants whose main area of operation is Afghanistan?
As discussed in my last post, Pakistan’s military offensive in South Waziristan was framed in the context of a punitive mission against Mehsud based on Raj-era notions of retribution, and was therefore quite different from its operation in Swat, which aimed to re-occupy territory seized by the Taliban and restore the writ of the state. So if Mehsud is indeed dead, the Pakistan Army may already have met its objective.
It would probably need new orders to do more – and however much analysts argue that the Pakistani military still calls the shots on foreign and security policy – Pakistan Army chief General Ashfaq Kayani has been something of a stickler in insisting that he takes his orders from the civilian government.
So even on this narrow technical definition, the decision about what happens next will be political rather than military – albeit a decision in which the army has a powerful say.
India’s South Asia Intelligence Review (SAIR) has just produced a detailed assessment on the stability of Pakistan’s heartland Punjab province and its conclusions are unsettling.
The base for militants including anti-India groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed along with the sectarian Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, Punjab has largely escaped the attention given to the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), where the Pakistan Army is fighting the Taliban. As a result a spate of bomb attacks in Punjab tends to be viewed, rightly or wrongly, as a spillover from the fighting in NWFP and FATA, with little attention given to the situation inside the province.
The suicide bomb attack on the Pakistan Army in Pakistani Kashmir on Friday was not only unprecedented; it also raised questions about the state of militancy in Pakistan.
At its simplest level, the first suicide bombing in Pakistan’s side of Kashmir was seen as a reaction by the Pakistani Taliban to Pakistan’s military campaign against them in South Waziristan. “The militants are hurting and they are reacting. And this is a reaction to the successful operations we’ve had in Waziristan and we’ve had in the Malakand division,” Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi told Reuters.
In a world used to watching war played out on television, and more recently to following protests in Iran via Twitter and YouTube, the Pakistan Army’s impending military offensive in South Waziristan on the Afghan border is probably not getting the attention it deserves — not least but because the operation is shrouded in secrecy.
Yet the offensive has the potential to be a turning point in the battle against the Taliban which began with the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. Many Taliban and their al Qaeda allies fled Afghanistan to Pakistan’s tribal areas after the U.S. invasion – the CIA said this month it believed Osama bin Laden was still hiding in Pakistan. The offensive in South Waziristan, designed to target Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud, would if successful deprive the Taliban and al Qaeda of what has been until now one of their safest boltholes.
It was Lord Curzon, Britain’s turn of the century Viceroy of India, who said it would need a brave man to subjugate Pakistan’s rebellious Waziristan region and he was not up to it.
“No patchwork scheme—and all our present recent schemes…are mere patchwork—will settle the Waziristan problem. Not until the military steamroller has passed over the country from end to end, will there be peace. But I do not want to be the person to start that machine,” he said in remarks that have oft been repeated each time anyone has attempted to bring the region under control.
The Pakistan Army may have driven the Taliban out of Swat but the refugees who fled to escape the military offensive are still in limbo.
Aid agencies are calling on the government to make sure that basic services are restored for people trying to return home after the offensive. They are also saying that landmines and other unexploded weapons pose an additional risk and say public areas – especially around schools, hospitals and markets – must be cleared of ordnance immediately.
Some people in India are calling upon the new coalition government to make a series of bold moves towards Pakistan that will compel the neighbour to put its money where the mouth is.
If Pakistan keeps saying that it cannot fully and single-mindedly go after militants on its northwest frontier and indeed increasingly within the heartland because of the threat it faces from India, then New Delhi must call its bluff, argued authors Nitin Pai and Sushant K. Singh in a recent piece for India’s Mint newspaper.
With Pakistan facing a refugee crisis, and its army engaged in intense fighting in the Swat valley, the question of who makes decisions in the country and how these are taken may not seem like the top priority.
But Shuja Nawaz at the Atlantic Council makes a strong argument in favour of deepening institutional mechanisms for decision-making. While President Asif Ali Zardari, who has retained the sweeping presidential powers of his predecessor Pervez Musharraf, made many decisions himself and also personally represented Pakistan diplomatically on trips overseas, the institutional process of decision-making that would allow coordination between the different branches of the country’s government is lacking, he writes. As a result the government seemed unprepared to deal with the million refugees created by Pakistan’s military offensive against the Taliban.
With Pakistan launching what the country’s Daily Times calls an “all-out war” against the Taliban, more than 500,000 people have fled the fighting in the northwest, bringing to more than a million those displaced since August, according to the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR.After apparently giving the Taliban enough rope to hang themselves, by offering a peace deal in the Swat valley which the government said they then reneged upon, the government for now seems to have won enough popular backing to launch its offensive.But to succeed in defeating the Taliban, the government must also be ready with a strategy to rebuild shattered lives if the mood in the northwest is not to turn sour, Dawn newspaper says. It quotes defence analyst Ikram Sehgal as estimating the military could take up to two months to conclude its campaign, and that dealing with the impact on civilians will require more than 10 times the one billion rupees (12 million dollars) the government has so far announced.In a separate article, it says that refugees are already upset about the behaviour of both the Taliban and the military. ’We are frightened of the Taliban and the army. If they want to fight, they should kill each other, they should not take refuge in our homes,” it quotes an 18-year-old girl as saying.Both Pakistan’s The News International newspaper and the blog Changing up Pakistan warn against the onset of compassion fatigue, both for the sake of the people affected and to make sure refugee camps do not turn into recruiting grounds for the Taliban.”If the militants can provide services and offer more viable options for IDPs than the state, that is a dangerous phenomenon. The government and international agencies must therefore do more to relieve the plight of the ever-increasing number of displaced persons in Pakistan, not just for humanitarian purposes, but because we cannot afford to let the Taliban win any more,” Changing up Pakistan says.In the meantime, more questions are being raised about the U.S. administration’s policy of using unmanned drone aircraft to fire missiles on Pakistan’s tribal areas. The missile attacks, meant to target militant leaders and disrupt al Qaeda’s capabilities, cause civilian casualties, alienate Pakistanis who see them as an invasion of sovereignty and add to a perception that Pakistan is fighting “America’s war” in one place, while being bombed by American planes in another.Foreign Policy Journal quotes U.S. Congressman Ron Paul as criticising the Obama administration for continuing the drone missile attacks first started under President George W. Bush. “We are bombing a sovereign country,” it quotes him as saying. “Where do we get the authority to do that? Did the Pakistani government give us written permission? Did the Congress give us written permission to expand the war and start bombing in Pakistan?” he asked.
It adds that he said there are “many, many thousands of Pashtuns that are right smack in the middle, getting killed by our bombs, and then we wonder why they object to our policies over there. How do you win the hearts and minds of these people if we’re seen as invaders and occupies?”
Dawn newspaper also urges an end to the drone attacks in a passionately worded editorial.
President Barack Obama’s statement on Pakistan at a news conference on Wednesday appeared to be more measured than the spate of alarmist comments about the country in the past week or so. It is worth reading in full:
“Q Thank you, Mr. President. I want to move to Pakistan. Pakistan appears to be at war with the Taliban inside their own country. Can you reassure the American people that, if necessary, America could secure Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal and keep it from getting into the Taliban’s hands or, worst-case scenario, even al Qaeda’s hands?