Pakistan: Now or Never?
Perspectives on Pakistan
Last week’s suicide bombing in Pakistan’s Bajaur region, which killed at least 40 people, had a grim predictability to it. The Pakistan Army cleared Pakistani Taliban militants out of their main strongholds in Bajaur, which borders Afghanistan’s Kunar province, after 20 months of intense fighting which ended earlier this year. But as discussed in this post in October the insurgents’ ability to flee to Kunar — where the U.S. military presence has been thinned out — combined with a failure to provide Bajaur with good governance, suggested the security situation in the region was likely to be deteriorating. The bombing appeared to confirm those fears.
The implications go far beyond Bajaur. The Pakistan Army has resisted U.S. pressure to launch a military offensive against militant strongholds in North Waziristan until it has secured gains made elsewhere. Pakistani daily The Express Tribune quoted army spokesman Major General Athar Abbas as reiterating that point after the Bajaur bombing and after fighting in the neighbouring Mohmand region. Until areas “cleared” by the military were consolidated, “it is impossible to rush into another campaign,” it quoted him as saying.
The Taliban in Bajaur also had historically close ties with militants who overran the Swat valley and caused worldwide alarm by pushing further into Pakistan’s heartland before they were ousted by the Pakistan Army in 2009. Any further evidence of the Taliban regaining ground in Bajaur would therefore be a cause for concern that military gains in Swat — itself reeling from this summer’s devastating floods — could also be reversed.
In some aspects — though not all — Pakistan’s problems in tackling militants are a mirror image of those faced by the United States on the other side of the border. Soldiers can drive militants out of their strongholds, but they can’t stop them melting into the local population or fleeing across the border. And they can’t hold and build on those military gains without civilian back-up to provide people with governance.
One of the more troublesome aspects of the current situation in Pakistan is how subdued – at least relative to the scale of the deaths – are protests against suicide bombings on Pakistani cities. Travelling from Lahore to Islamabad last month, my taxi driver winced in pain when I told him I had a text message saying the city we had just left, his city, had been bombed again. Yet where was the outlet for him to express that pain, or indeed for the many grieving families who had lost relatives?
I was reminded of this reading Nadeem Paracha’s latest piece in Dawn on the outcry over Aafia Siddiqui, the Pakistani neuroscientist jailed in the United States after being convicted of shooting at U.S. soldiers. She has been claimed as the “daughter of the nation” who must be rescued from an American jail.
When Northern Ireland’s Omagh bomb exploded, killing 29 people, I was in England, by cruel coincidence attending the wedding of a young man who had been badly injured in another attack in the town of Enniskillen more than a decade earlier.
I had just switched my phone on after leaving the church on a glorious, sunny Saturday afternoon when my news editor called. “There’s been a bomb. It sounds bad. We’re trying to get you on a flight.”
U.S. defence officials, in a ringing vote of confidence, said over the weekend that Pakistan had the forces and equipment to launch a long-awaited ground offensive in South Waziristan. It could mount this assault without seeking more reinforcements, a U.S. official said, according to this Reuters report. Yet Pakistan had cited in recent months shortages of helicopters, armoured vehicles and precision weapons in putting off a Waziristan assault.So what has changed? Has the United States, desperate to turn around a faltering war in Afghanistan, got ahead of itself in nudging Pakistan toward “the mother-of-all battles”? Some people are asking if the Pakistan Army is really ready to start what must be its bigest test yet since the militants turned on the Pakistani state. If the idea is to go in and linflict casualties on the Taliban in the hope of killing senior leaders, then it will be another punitive strike for which the force levels may well be adequate.But if the Pakistan Army plans to go into the Mehsud strongholds and occupy the region then the numbers are a bit worrying, says Bill Roggio at The Long War Journal. A Pakistan Army spokesman has said that two divisions, or up to 28,000 soldiers, are in place to take on an estimated 10,000 hard-core Taliban. But Roggio says Waliur Rehman Mehsud, who heads the Mehsud Taliban forces in Waziristan, (Hakimullah Mehsud who surfaced at the weekend is the overall head of the Pakistani Taliban) is estimated to command anything between 10,000 to 30,000 forces. If the army were to wage a full-scale counter-insurgency they and the Frontier Corps “would need to throw multiple divisions against a Taliban force of this size,” he argues. And then there is the Haqqani network, as well as a sizeable contingent of Uzbek and other non-Pakistani fighters in the area. They may well join the fight, according to the Dawn newspaper. (more…)
The first big suicide bombing in Pakistan this week since the slaying of Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud in a U.S.-missile strike had a particularly nasty edge to it.
The attack in Torkham, a post on the main route for moving supplies to NATO and American forces in Afghanistan, took place just before dusk, as a group of tribal police officers prepared to break the Ramadan fast on the lawn outside their barracks.