A Strategy to Fight Militancy?

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Cyril Almeida

EIGHT years since 9/11 rendered debate on whether Pakistan needed a policy against militancy or not moot, the secondary question has still not been answered satisfactorily: what is the state’s policy against militancy? Despite notable successes against militants in Bajaur and Mohmand tribal agencies and the Malakand division over the past year, there are still serious questions about whether the state has a coherent, workable strategy to fight militancy and ensure a long-term future in which militants do not pose a threat to the writ of the state.

The doubts are fanned by two facts: one, never has the state spelled out  its  strategy  to  fight  militancy  beyond  the  platitudes  to  protect the ‘national interest’ against ‘extremists’; and two, the rising arc of militancy inside Pakistan over much of the last decade suggests that the strategy, to the extent that it does exist, has not been an effective one. In the absence of a publicly articulated strategy to fight militancy, the numbers tell a story of their own. According to the South Asia Terrorism Portal, the total casualties from terrorist violence (civilian, security forces personnel and terrorist/militant) in 2003 was 189. By 2006, the total had climbed to 1,471 and to 6,715 by 2008. In 2009, by 21 Sept  8,175 people had died.

In April 2009, a few days before Operation Rah-i-Rast was launched in the Malakand division against the Swat chapter of the Tehrik-i- Taliban led by Maulana Fazlullah, Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, the army chief, vowed that “victory against terror and militancy will be achieved at all costs.” Gen Kayani went on to say in his comments to top military commanders that the army “never has and never will hesitate to sacrifice, whatever it may take, to ensure safety and well-being of the people and country’s territorial integrity.” In the months since, the Pakistan Army has led operations that have decimated the Swat TTP, squeezed the TTP in its base in South Waziristan and seen Baitullah Mehsud killed by a drone strike that was likely aided by Pakistani intelligence. But do Gen Kayani’s words and the army’s recent actions add up to a coherent strategy to fight militancy?

Not quite. The Pakistan Army — and it is very clear that the army dictates the overall approach to the fight against militancy — has what was described to the writer in a background conversation with one of the country’s best analysts a ‘set of priorities,’ not a strategy. Depending on the seriousness of the threat posed to the state by a particular group of militants or the pressure from outside to act against a particular network, the state as directed by the army has acted against it. The ‘prioritisation’ on those grounds is not very hard to detect.

Broadly speaking, the army divides militants into different categories: Al Qaeda elements and those directly affiliated with the network; Pakistani militants; the Afghan Taliban; and various criminal gangs and networks that have latched on to pre-existing militant groups.

Al Qaeda and its directly associated movements have been a target of the state the longest. In his 12 Jan  2002 speech to the nation, then president Gen Musharraf (retd) said: “We have been taking measures against terrorism from the beginning, not because of any outside pressure. We were already carrying out these measures when a terrorist attack was carried out in America on 11 September. After 11 September we joined the international coalition against terrorism and I am delighted that the majority of Pakistani people supported this decision.”

It is questionable to what extent Pakistan was acting against Al Qaeda before 9/11, but successes since have been numerous. The roll-call of Al Qaeda leaders captured or killed is lengthy and includes Saudi-born Palestinian Abu Zubaydah (Faisalabad, March 2002), Yemeni Ramzi Binalshibh (Karachi, September 2002), Khalid Shaikh Mohammad (Rawalpindi, March 2003), Abu Faraj al-Liby (Mardan, May 2005), Abu Hamza Rabia (North Waziristan, December 2005), Abu Laith al-Libi (North Waziristan, January 2008), Abu Khabab al- Masri (South Waziristan, July 2008) and Abu Khabab al-Masri (Bajaur, August 2008). There is little doubt that the army and the state remain committed to finding and capturing or eliminating Al Qaeda leaders, intelligence and operational constraints permitting. There is absolutely no love lost between Al Qaeda and the Pakistan Army; Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri have themselves called for strikes against the army and its leadership. Indeed, one of the above mentioned Al Qaeda militants, Abu Faraj al-Liby, is believed to have been the mastermind of the assassination attempts on Gen Musharraf (retd) in December 2003.

Action against the other three militant ‘categories’ though has been limited, with the state ‘prioritising’ action against certain groups on the basis of its ‘threat’ and ‘pressure’ tests. Least likely to have drawn the state’s ire are the assorted criminal gangs and networks that have expanded their activities under the garb of religion. But when the threat has grown, the state has acted. Since June 2008, a series of operations have been launched in Khyber agency against three groups, the Lashkar-i-Islam led by Mangal Bagh Afridi, the Ansarul Islam led by Pir Saifur Rehman and a group called Amar Bil Maarouf Wa Nahi (the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice) led by Haji Namdar. The earlier operations were criticised and their effectiveness and the army’s strategy were questioned perhaps precisely because the army was acting according to its threat test; slaps on the wrist for the troublesome, a pounding for growing, recalcitrant threats. The latest operation launched in Khyber in September in the Bara region against Mangal Bagh and other criminal elements is believed to have been the most serious and the most effective partially because Peshawar itself was coming under threat from the activities of the criminal gangs operating in the area — the army thereby once again showing its willingness to act once certain ‘red lines’ have been crossed.

Similarly, within the ‘Pakistani militants’ category a clear prioritisation is visible: militants who have crossed red lines and attacked the state directly and repeatedly and reneged on peace offers are the ones who have found themselves in the army’s crosshairs. Consider the most prominent targets in recent months: Baitullah Mehsud and Maulana Fazlullah.

Baitullah Mehsud, who emerged as militant leader following the death of Nek Muhammad in 2004, was given the carrot-and-stick treatment on several occasions until his death in August. From March to July 2004, the security forces blockaded his base in South Waziristan and entered and fought inside the Mehsud strongholds, but a peace deal was reached in February 2005, which was renounced by Mehsud in July of the same year. Then in August 2007, he captured 242 soldiers, leading to the release of 24 militants in exchange for the return of the abducted soldiers. In January 2008, another military operation was launched in South Waziristan but it was called off within weeks and yet another deal was reached. What finally appeared to push the state irreversibly against Mehsud was the wave of suicide bombings and attacks on security targets inside Pakistan proper in the last 18 months that were almost invariably traced back to Mehsud’s network and allies in the Waziristan agencies. By the time a drone strike killed Baitullah Mehsud in August, likely aided by intelligence provided through Pakistani sources, he had become Public Enemy No 1 and was openly mentioned as an enemy of the state. Mehsud had crossed all the red lines of the Pakistan Army and its threat assessment of his network made it impossible to not act against him.

The same ambivalence towards Maulana Fazlullah and his rapid rise to prominence in Swat after starting his illegal FM radio broadcasts in 2006 is also detectable. A nine-point peace deal in May 2007 and a 15- point peace deal in May 2008 were interspersed with three moderately effective phases of Operation Rah-i-Haq, beginning in October 2007.

Then came the Malakand Accord of February 2009, which gave birth to the controversial Nizam-i-Adl Regulation, 2009 and seemingly gave the militants all that they had claimed to fight for. But the failure of Fazlullah’s Swat TTP to abide by the terms of the Malakand Accord was the last straw in the army’s analysis. With all the red lines having been crossed and the state and the security forces themselves having become a target of the Swat TTP, there was no choice but to place his organisation at the top of the list of priority targets and rout it.

Other networks of Pakistani militants, however, have notably not met a similar fate and continue to survive, if not thrive. Consider the most prominent of the ‘Punjabi Taliban’ groups, the Lashkar-i-Taiba, a group that has drawn international attention once again following the terrorist attacks in Mumbai in November 2008. Led by Hafiz Saeed and currently known as the Jamaatud Dawa — periodic official ‘bans’ force such groups to routinely change their names — the group is opposed to fighting the Pakistani state, does not foment trouble against the security agencies and is avowedly focused on its fight against India. It is not high on the army’s list of priorities in the fight against militancy because it is not a direct threat. Following the Mumbai attacks, the organisation did become an embarrassment to the state and was the reason for considerable pressure being brought to bear on Pakistan, so the response was to act against those among its cadres based in Pakistan who were directly linked to the attacks and to leave the wider network relatively unscathed. Hafiz Saeed has recently been detained in his home once again, but the government continues to insist that India has not provided proof of his involvement in the Mumbai attacks and therefore cannot prosecute him.

The Afghan Taliban appear to the lowest on the list of the state’s priorities, something which will come as no surprise to anyone who has heard the frequent and loud complaints of American, Afghan and ISAF officials. Here too the state’s calculation is apparent: the Afghan Taliban are primarily focused on the fight inside Afghanistan and they do not threaten Pakistan at present; therefore, they do not merit pressure from the state here.

Gen Stanley McChrystal’s assessment of the war in Afghanistan clearly identifies the various components of the Afghan Taliban: “The major insurgent groups in order of their threat to the mission are: the Quetta Shura Taliban (QST), the Haqqani Network (HQN), and the Hezb-i-Islami Gulbuddin (HiG).” The general is also very clear about the significance of Pakistani terrain to those groups:

“Afghanistan’s insurgency is clearly supported from Pakistan. Senior leaders of the major Afghan insurgent groups are based in Pakistan, are linked with Al Qaeda and other violent extremist groups, and are reportedly aided by some elements of Pakistan’s ISI. Al Qaeda and associated movements (AQAM) based in Pakistan channel foreign fighters, suicide bombers, and technical assistance into Afghanistan, and offer ideological motivation, training, and financial support. Al Qaeda’s links with HQN have grown, suggesting that expanded HQN control could create a favourable environment for AQAM to re-establish safe havens in Afghanistan. Additionally, the ISAF mission in Afghanistan is reliant on ground supply routes through Pakistan that remain vulnerable to these threats.”

The Quetta shura, allegedly led by Mullah Omar, is a frequent source of tension between the US and Pakistan (an article in The New York Times on Sept 23 stated, “The issue of the Taliban leadership council, or shura, in Quetta is now at the top of the Obama administration’s agenda in its meetings with Pakistani officials.”) but there are genuine reasons to doubt its existence as an omnipotent network and the security establishment’s alleged support for it. What seems more likely is that the state is turning a blind eye rather than providing active assistance to Afghan Taliban members who are hiding out in and around Quetta and along parts of the Pak-Afghan border in Balochistan.

Anne Patterson, the US ambassador to Pakistan, in an interview with  McClatchy  Newspapers  in  September  spoke  of  the  “different priorities” of Pakistan and claimed that the state is “certainly reluctant to take action” against the leadership of the Afghan Taliban based in Pakistan. Ambassador Patterson went on the say: “Where we (the US) differ, of course, is the treatment of the groups who are attacking our troops in Afghanistan. And that comes down to Haqqani and Gul Bahadur and Nazir, to a lesser extent Hekmatyar, and yes, of course, there are differences there.”

Pakistan will of course deny the ambassador’s claims, but the facts suggest otherwise. Gul Bahadur is a powerful warlord in North Waziristan and Maulvi Nazir a powerful one in South Waziristan; both have been courted by the state in its bid to isolate and defeat the Baitullah Mehsud network. Similarly, the fact that the Haqqani network and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar have bases in Fata is an open secret. Indeed, Ambassador Patterson was sympathetic to the state’s position: “In my view the Pakistanis don’t have the capacity to go after some of these groups. Some they do, let me stress. But say Siraj Haqqani holds territory, huge swathes of territory in North Waziristan, where he’s been implanted for years.”

Given this rather clear pattern of prioritisation and sympathy for it extended by no less than the US ambassador to Pakistan, could it not qualify as the coherent strategy that the state requires to fight militancy effectively? Because the army publicly denies that prioritisation is in fact at play, the possible thinking behind it has to be deduced.

First, there are clearly operational constraints at work. The state simply does not have the resources to fight on many fronts at the same time. Going after the Afghan Taliban in Balochistan where a low-level local insurgency is continuing, the Haqqani, Hekmatyar, Baitullah Mehsud, Hafiz Gul Bahadur, Maulvi Nazir networks in Fata, the Swat TTP in Malakand division, the criminal gangs masquerading as Islamic militants in Khyber agency, the Lashkar-i-Taiba, Jaish-i-Mohammad, Harkatul Mujahideen, etc., in the Punjab and elsewhere, Al Qaeda in the cities and in the tribal areas, and the foreign militants with an interest in China or the Central Asian Republics at the same is very difficult. The list of militant groups is seemingly endless, the targets spread out across the length and breadth of the country and the task of defeating them so complex (part counter-insurgency, part counter-terrorism in nature), so it is understandable to a degree that the state is working sequentially and dealing only with the ‘worst of the worst’ first.

Second, the India factor. Adm Mike Mullen, chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, told the US Senate Committee on Armed Services in September: “It’s my view they (Pakistan) are not going to lose their focus on India.” Explaining the Pakistan Army’s point of view further, Adm Mullen said: “They’ve got a challenge of literally two fights, a conventional fight or a conventional challenge and threat along with a counter insurgency challenge which they increasingly recognise.” That sums up the Pakistan Army’s approach: it can neither afford to commit 100 per cent of the resources at its disposal to fight militants nor zero per cent, but the percentage of resources it does commit to fighting militants is affected both by the severity of the threat from the militants as well as from India.

Third, Pakistan’s stake in the Afghanistan of the future. The US’s strategic commitment to the region is far from clear; twice in his first 9 months in office, President Obama has re-evaluated his strategy for Afghanistan. However, there are other, regional powers — Iran, Russia, China, India — that are jockeying for influence in Afghanistan. In this environment of strategic uncertainty and competition, Pakistan cannot be expected to commit to a project — the elimination of the Afghan Taliban or at least their power to influence events in Afghanistan — when it isn’t clear if the other powers are committed to achieving that goal in the long term.

Seen from that perspective, the Pakistan Army’s policy of fighting only those networks that persistently and implacably oppose the Pakistani state and have turned their guns on the state and the people appears to make strategic and political sense — fight only the ‘worst of the worst’ and keep an eye on the neutral or friendly groups to in case events cause them to turn unfriendly. A coherent, practical and eminently sensible strategy to fight militancy, then, seems to be in hand.

The problem is that the prioritisation approach ignores a grim reality: the various militant groups are far from discrete entities that are insulated from each other. Cross-pollination has occurred and the different groups work in concert and share resources to such an extent that it would be closer to the mark to describe the universe of militancy in Pakistan as a cocktail rather than readily identifiable discrete groups. The evidence of this has been available for years.

On 25 Dec 2003, two suicide bombers struck Gen Musharraf’s (retd) motorcade in Rawalpindi. One of the attackers, Muhammad Jameel, hit the car carrying Nadeem Taj, who went from being Musharraf’s military secretary to DG Military Intelligence and finally DG ISI. A report in Dawn on 29 Dec  2003 explained Jameel’s background:

“Dawn’s investigation revealed that Muhammad Jameel, 23, was affiliated with the banned Jaish-i-Mohammad, a militant organisation that had training camps in Rishkore near Kabul in the Taliban-ruled Afghanistan and was actively involved in the occupied Kashmir….

“Investigations revealed that Muhammad Jameel, resident of Androot,  Police  Station,  Torarh  in  Poonch  district,  Azad  Kashmir, had received only primary-level education and was a Hafizul Quran (memorised the Holy Book by heart).

“Fired by fiery speeches by jihadi leaders, Jameel went to Jalalabad via Torkham in eastern Nangrahar province in January 2001 through an Afghan cloth merchant in AJ&K. Soon afterwards, he moved to Kabul and lived in Darul Aman area on the outskirts of the Afghan capital.  “Jameel, however, was wounded and captured when the US-backed Northern Alliance attacked Kabul later that year. He was shifted to a hospital and remained under treatment for 15 days. The transitional government in Afghanistan led by President Hamid Karzai handed him over to Pakistani authorities along with 29 other militants that same month and they were flown to Peshawar in a military aircraft.

“They were re-arrested by the Pakistani authorities and charged with entering Pakistan without travel documents.

“Significantly, though, Jameel was declared ‘white’ by security agencies when interrogated by a Joint Interrogation Team in April last year. The JIT had concluded that the suspect was not involved in any anti-state activities and since nothing adverse had been found against him, the JIT had unanimously declared him ‘white’ implying that his custody was not required by the agencies.”

More recently, following the death of Baitullah Mehsud, it is widely believed that Al Qaeda and the Haqqani network intervened in the succession crisis in the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan and brokered a peace between the rival factions vying for power. Meanwhile, investigations into the spate of suicide bombings inside Pakistan suggest that Al Qaeda is providing the ideology and indoctrination, South Waziristan’s Baitullah Mehsud network the training resources and the Punjabi Taliban the ‘manpower’ to carry out the suicide strikes.

All of this makes nonsense of a strategy to defeat militancy in Pakistan by prioritising which groups are to be fought against on the basis of their opposition to the Pakistani state. Furthermore, it cannot be overlooked that the present-day ‘strategy’ of defeating militancy is geared to fight groups that in the not-too-distant past were not considered to be a threat. And by the time they were considered to be a threat to the state and therefore tackled — such as Baitullah Mehsud’s network and Maulana Fazlullah’s Swat TTP — they had already caused tremendous damage to the state and the people. It is therefore difficult to avoid the conclusion that the Pakistan Army’s ‘red lines’ are worryingly deep, that by the time a serious threat is recognised and challenged the harm caused is already  intolerable.

As mentioned earlier, there are in fact operational constraints limiting the state’s ability to open multiple fronts at the same time.  However,  as also indicated,  some of those limits  are self-imposed; were the army to alter its threat perception in Afghanistan and from India, more resources could be freed to fight militancy  in earnest on several more fronts than it is being fought at present. The future could be made safer, but it remains hostage to the past.