Pakistan: Now or Never?
Perspectives on Pakistan
At the rehabilitation center for former militants in Pakistan's Swat valley, the psychiatrist speaks for the young man sitting opposite him in silence. "It was terrible. He was unable to escape. The fear is so strong. Still the fear is so strong." Hundreds of miles away in Lahore, capital of Punjab province, a retired army officer recalls another young man who attacked him while he prayed - his "absolutely expressionless face" as he crouched down robot-like to reload his gun.
Both youths had been sucked into an increasingly fierce campaign of gun and bomb attacks by Islamist militants on military and civilian targets across Pakistan. But there the similarity stops.
One is now being "de-radicalized" in the rehabilitation center in Swat, the northern region which only two years ago was overrun by the Pakistani Taliban and has since been cleared after a massive military operation. He will be taught that Islam does not permit violence against the state and that suicide bombing is "haram" or forbidden.
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.
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…)
A new poll shows public opinion in Pakistan has turned sharply against the Taliban and other Islamist militants, even though they still do not trust the United States and President Barack Obama. Reporting on the poll, our Asia specialist in Washington, Paul Eckert, said the WorldPublicOpinion.org poll, conducted in May as Pakistan's army fought the Taliban in the Swat Valley, found that 81 percent saw the Pakistani Taliban and al Qaeda as a critical threat to the country, a jump from 34 percent in a similar poll in late 2007. Read Eckert's report here. (Photo: Pakistani Taliban in Swat, 2 Nov 2007/Sherin Zada Kanju)
The poll shows a wide divergence between Pakistani public opinion and the views of the Taliban on the implementation of sharia, a religious issue sometimes cited to help explain earlier tolerance of the militants. Some 80 percent of the respondents said sharia permits education for girls, one of the first services the Taliban close down when they gain control of an area. And 75 percent said sharia allows women to work, which the Taliban do not.
One theory about how to deal with militant Islamism calls for promoting Sufism, the mystical school of Islam known for its tolerance, as a potent antidote to more radical readings of the faith. Promoted for several years now by U.S.-based think tanks such as Rand and the Heritage Institute, a Sufi-based approach arguably enjoys an advantage over other more politically or economically based strategies because it offers a faith-based answer that comes from within Islam itself. After trying so many other options for dealing with the Taliban militants now openly challenging it, the Pakistani government now seems ready to try this theory out. Just at the time when it's suffered a stinging set-back in practice... (Photo: Pakistani Sufi musicians in Karachi, 7 May 2007/Zahid Hussein)
Earlier this month, on June 7 to be exact, Islamabad announced the creation of a Sufi Advisory Council (SAC) to try to enlist spirituality against suicide bombers. In theory at least, this approach could have wide support. Exact numbers are unclear, but Pakistan is almost completely Muslim, about three-quarters of its Muslims are Sunnis and maybe two-thirds of them are Barelvis. This South Asian school of Islam, heavily influenced by traditional Sufi mysticism, is notable for its colourful shrines to saints whose very existence is anathema to more orthodox forms of Islam. Among those are the minority of Pakistani Sunnis, the Deobandis, who are followers of a stricter revivalist movement founded in 19th-century India whose militant branch led to the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban. Many Deobandis think Pakistan's Shi'ite minority is not truly Muslim.
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.
The Pakistan Army is engaged in what appears to be a very nasty little war in the Swat valley against heavily armed Taliban militants. With journalists having left Swat, there have been no independent reports of what is going on there, though the scale of the operation can be partly measured by the huge numbers of refugees – nearly 1.7 million – who fled to escape the military offensive.
Dawn newspaper carried an interview with a wounded soldier saying the Taliban had buried mines and planted IEDs every 50 metres. ‘They positioned snipers in holes made out of the walls of houses. They used civilians as human shields. They used to attack from houses and roofs,” it quoted him as saying. ‘They are well equipped, they have mortars. They have rockets, sniper rifles and every type of sophisticated weapons.”
Ahmed Rashid’s article on Pakistan in the New York Review of Books makes for an alarming read. Excerpts do not do justice to it, as you have to read the whole thing to understand why he thinks Pakistan really is on the brink, but here are a few:
“American officials are in a concealed state of panic, as I observed during a recent visit to Washington at the time when 17,000 additional troops were being dispatched to Afghanistan. The Obama administration unveiled its new Afghan strategy on March 27, only to discover that Pakistan is the much larger security challenge, while US options there are far more limited.”
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.