Sunday, June 29, 2014
Poised to go in All indications from the military authorities point to the completion of the evacuation of residents from North Waziristan Agency (NWA). Nevertheless, the military authorities have attempted to persuade any stragglers, stranded people and those who may have stayed behind to look after their properties to leave the area. These developments confirm the likelihood of the expected ground assault as imminent. Whereas air and artillery bombardments killed 18-19 terrorists on Saturday, the tough part now looms when ground troops will attempt to flush out and as far as possible eliminate terrorists who may still be holed up in NWA. The Saturday bombardments, according to the military authorities, included the destruction of six confirmed hideouts and the killing of 11 terrorists by PAF strikes. Artillery and tank fire outside encircled Miranshah killed another seven, including Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) commander Umer and the capture of a prominent al Qaeda commander while trying to flee. The captured al Qaeda commander is said to be an expert at explosives, improvised explosive devices and suicide belts. Whereas 19 terrorists surrendered the other day and more are expected to lay down their arms as the campaign grinds on, three terrorists were arrested on Saturday while trying to cross the Indus and escape near Mianwali. It is being reported that all crossing points on the Indus are now manned by the security forces as part of the cordon established around NWA. Although the military authorities are confident that they have cut off all escape routes, once the ground assault begins will come the real test of this claim. Particularly of concern is the Shawal Valley that traverses South and North Waziristan and even into Afghanistan and is considered some of the toughest terrain favouring guerrillas because of its maze-like formation, forest cover, etc. Reports speak of the TTP and their affiliated terrorist groups decamping to the Shawal Valley, although it is not yet clear whether they would risk a determined resistance in the area or only a holding operation to allow the bulk of their forces and leaders to melt away. This is the tactic Mulla Fazlullah used in Swat when the military offensive rolled up at his doorstep. The other concern in this context therefore is the ability of the Pakistani and Afghan forces on the other side to seal off the notoriously porous border, the recent agreement on cooperation between the two countries notwithstanding. Even with the best intentions, it is an inherently very difficult task, given the terrain, familiarity of the terrorists with the border escape routes, and even the lateness in time of the Pakistan-Afghanistan agreement. It may be recalled that at the height of the Afghan Taliban’s forays into Afghanistan from their safe havens on Pakistani soil to fight the US, NATO and Afghan forces, Washington’s pleas to Islamabad to cooperate in a ‘hammer and anvil’ campaign, whereby the allied forces would hit the Afghan Taliban hard on the Afghan side of the border (the ‘hammer’) and the Pakistani forces would stop them from escaping into Pakistani territory (the ‘anvil’) was summarily rejected by the the military because of lingering wrong notions of ‘strategic depth’ and the Afghan Taliban being our ‘strategic assets’. Time, experience, and the exposure of the nexus between the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, best reflected in the Haqqani network’s willingness to host and provide a safe haven to Mulla Fazlullah in the eastern provinces of Afghanistan bordering Pakistan has overtaken such notions. Now the military has not only changed tack, it has employed what it considers sufficient air and ground firepower to succeed in its assault on the TTP and other terrorist bases in NWA. While nothing can be predicted with absolute certainty in military operations before the event, good generalship always requires planning for contingencies, setbacks, unexpected developments on the battlefield, etc. No one should have any illusions that the winkling out of the terrorist presence from NWA will be easy, quick, or a one-off event. Once the initial clearing of the area is largely achieved, other, even tougher long term tasks loom. Counter-insurgency requires that the phase of clearing be followed by stages in which ‘hold’ and ‘develop’ acquire great importance if the initial successes are to be consolidated. Unlike the Swat operation, it would be in the fitness of things if there were not a long hiatus between the clearing phase and the development one, the latter requiring civilian institutional arrangements to be restored. However, the manner in which the terrorists have decapitated the traditional tribal leadership of Mallicks by killing almost 500 of them over time, it is not clear whether the future would allow a return to the traditional methods of governance and control in NWA in particular and FATA in general. If not, this should not be seen as a complete disaster but rather an opportunity to bring NWA and FATA into the mainstream through appropriate policies and steps. All this lies ahead. For the moment, we can only wish our forces success against the menace of terrorism.
Monday, June 16, 2014
Finally, the assault The attack on Karachi airport seems finally to have tipped the scales in favour of a full-blooded assault on the terrorist sanctuaries and bases in North Waziristan (NW). The military operation, named Zarb-e-Azb, involves a land and air campaign against local and foreign terrorists in NW regardless of ‘hue and colour’. This latter description in the ISPR’s press release on Sunday means that the whole binary of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Taliban, ‘strategic depth’ and other shibboleths stands demolished in the aftermath of the determined terrorist attack on Karachi airport, signalling a declaration of war by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and its affiliates in FATA. The first day’s operations on land and in the air produced anything from 105-150 casualties, most of them reportedly Uzbeks, with their commander Abu Abdul Rehman Almani believed to be amongst those killed. This Zarb-e-Azb will be the third major military operation after the Raah-e-Raast and Raah-e-Nijaat operations in Swat and South Waziristan respectively in 2009. All that can be said at this point is, better late than never. There is room to reflect on how many lives could have been saved and political, economic and social losses prevented had this operation been launched earlier. Previous and the present government must bear responsibility for the delays, including the military high command before the present one. If the military previously may have been restrained by the thought of the response from the terrorists and the possible uses of jihadi proxies in the Afghanistan context, it has been arguing since COAS General Raheel Sharif took over that eventually there is no escape from conducting military operations against the entrenched terrorists in the difficult terrain of NW. To the military’s credit, it has held its piece while keeping its powder dry, allowing the government all the room to try out its peace initiative through dialogue. That talks initiative never really took off, and after a long and ineffective process without result, it is the terrorists who turned the situation from all talk of peace towards all out war through their action in Karachi. These developments have overtaken the NW tribal jirga that was given 15 days to clear out the Agency of all foreign fighters, as well as the ‘peace’ agreement with Hafiz Gul Bahadur. Action against one set of terrorists is more likely than not to hit anyone and anything that stands in its path. To allow people who may wish to leave to save themselves and their families from what promises to be a fierce campaign, the military has isolated NW from adjoining Agencies, cordoned off known terrorist bases, set up internally displaced people (IDPs) registration points and camps, as well as surrender points for terrorists who may wish to turn over a new leaf by laying down their arms. Neigbour Afghanistan has been asked to seal the border to prevent terrorists slipping across and escaping and Kabul has also been requested to eliminate TTP sanctuaries in Kunar, Nuristan and other border provinces of Afghanistan. This translates into the long missing ‘encirclement and annihilation’ tactics that had been missing in earlier piecemeal campaigns Agency by Agency. In anticipation of the terrorist riposte throughout the country, the federal capital Islamabad has seen army units deployed, as have other major cities. Sindh province, particularly Karachi, is expected to see the greatest wave of IDPs fleeing FATA. The risk of terrorists slipping into the province and the metropolis under cover of this human wave has persuaded the Sindh government to set up vetting and registration check points on all the highways entering Sindh. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and some of his ministers have appealed to all the political forces and the country to stand behind the armed forces in this hour of trial. Interestingly, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf has reluctantly decided to back the operation “now that it has started”, while the Jamaat-e-Islami remains the sole holdout against military action. There are two points remaining to reflect on. One, contrary to media reports about the operation lasting three weeks or a little longer, no one should be under any illusion that this will be a protracted struggle, given the elusive enemy, forbidding terrain and the proximity of a porous border with Afghanistan. Some of the terrorists may well live to fight another day despite the best efforts of the military and security forces. Second, Ramzan is looming at the end of the month. That will be an automatic damper on the full-fledged assault mounted from Sunday. If the terrorists are given space and time during Ramzan, they are likely to come back even more viciously after. The campaign must not let up now that it has finally taken the plunge.
Friday, June 13, 2014
Drone strikes revival In two drone strikes after a hiatus of six months, between 10 and 16 militants were killed in North Waziristan on Wednesday/Thursday. Of those killed, at least four are said to be Uzbeks. This is significant in the light of the fact that the 10 attackers killed in Karachi just three days before the drone strikes were Uzbeks belonging to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, an ally of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, with fighters based for many years in FATA. The intriguing aspect of the revival of the drone strikes is whether they have been restarted with the ‘express approval’ of Pakistan. Despite the usual denials by the foreign office and even ritual condemnation as a violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty and unhelpful for the peace and tranquillity project, anonymous official sources have tacitly and even openly admitted that the drone strikes have been revived as a joint Pak-US project. From now on, according to these sources, all drone strikes will occur with the prior approval of Pakistan. It may be that in the case of the anti-Uzbek strikes and perhaps future ones, it will be the Pakistani authorities that will select and inform on the targets to be struck by drones. The campaign against drone strikes led, amongst others, by Imran Khan, argued that they cause unacceptable collateral damage in the shape of enormous civilian casualties. Although the case was not well documented for the obvious reason that the inaccessibility of FATA made independent verification of casualty figures virtually impossible, the hype around the campaign threw drone attacks in a poor light, not the least because it was also argued that they were a violation of international law and even a war crime. Of course the US had argued the contrary, relying on the doctrine of hot pursuit to justify strikes within Afghanistan and especially across the border in Pakistan’s tribal areas. The last drone strike before the current ones occurred in December 2013, after which Washington seemed to accept Islamabad’s plea for a halt (temporary, as it now turns out) to give the talks process a chance. If the reports of the revived drone strikes being a plausibly deniable joint venture of Washington and Islamabad are correct, it means that the Pakistan government and security establishment have come to the conclusion that the Karachi attack signals the end of the (already halting) talks process. Pakistan has therefore stepped up its own air strikes as well as, it seems, taken help from Washington to restart the drone attacks. Interestingly, amongst the killed militants (if the higher figure of 16 is accepted), 10 are reported to belong to the Haqqani network, indicating a rupture between the group and Pakistan. While any and all means to take out the elusive Taliban and their affiliates, foreign and local, are not only welcome, they are essential, the country must brace for the expected riposte from the militants. Unable to dent the military or other forces significantly in FATA, where they are concentrated in strength, the terrorists will, as is the norm in asymmetrical warfare, strike relatively soft targets over the rest of the country. An escalation of terrorist attacks, big and small, can not only be anticipated, it is almost inevitable. The PML-N government’s hopes of a peaceful solution through negotiations having virtually gone up in smoke, reports speak of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s ‘nod’ to COAS General Raheel Sharif for a full blooded ground offensive in North Waziristan. Already, fearing just such a development, people from North Waziristan have been streaming out into safer areas for fear of life and limb. The days to come will indicate whether the ground offensive actually starts or a reliance on air strikes and drone attacks, precisely targeting the enemy, will remain the dominant mode of operations.
Thursday, June 12, 2014
Response to terrorism The 72nd Formation Commanders’ Conference of the Pakistan army, a half-yearly event, chaired by COAS General Raheel Sharif, was held at GHQ on Wednesday against the backdrop of the attack on Karachi airport and retaliatory air strikes in North Waziristan (NW). After a thorough briefing and review of security strategy and operational preparedness in the struggle against the biggest challenge to the state from jihadi extremists, the Conference decided to step up surgical strikes against militants holed up in FATA generally, and in NW in particular. The decision can be viewed in the light of two ironies. One, the tribal jirga of NW was given a deadline the other day of 15 days to clear out their area of foreign fighters. And lo and behold, long before that deadline expired, Uzbek fighters of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan took responsibility, along with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), for the Karachi attack, with security forces sources claiming the operation was coordinated by the sectarian group the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. On the same day, the hiatus in drone strikes since December last was broken in NW by the killing of four Uzbek and two Punjabi Taliban fighters. If any further proof were required of the nexus amongst foreign and domestic jihadi and sectarian groups, the Karachi attack has brought into the full light of day the existence of a ‘Terror International’ on Pakistani soil. The constructed binary of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Taliban too is collapsing in the face of reports that the Haqqani network too may be part of the Terror International attacking Pakistan, despite the fact that they have been one of the most favoured and nurtured Afghan groups on Pakistani soil. This generosity they first repaid by hosting Mullah Fazlullah, the chief of the TTP, in the eastern provinces of Afghanistan across the border, which they control. Now reports say they have been involved at some level with the Karachi and other attacks by Pakistani and foreign Taliban, if not at an operational, then perhaps an intelligence and logistical level. Anyone with any sense could have seen that whatever the illusions of those who saw the Taliban fighting against Pakistan as ‘bad’ and those fighting the US/NATO/Afghan forces as ‘good’, and whatever the level of pretence maintained by all these groups to justify these labels, their ideological and operational nexus has proved more powerful than any other consideration, especially now that battle is truly joined between the Pakistani state and the fanatical terrorists who seek to overthrow it. And in case anyone thinks that the Karachi attack will be the end of immediate terrorism by the TTP and its affiliates, the attacks on Wednesday in seemingly ‘reconquered’ Swat that killed five people, including three policemen, indicate the stubborn nature and protracted timeline of combating the extremists’ insurgency and terrorism. In the aftermath of the Karachi attack, the tragedy of the seven people who lost their lives by being trapped inside a cold storage facility where they had taken refuge haunts the country. In addition, the bravery of the Airport Security Force (ASF) in blunting the terrorist attack at great cost and sacrifice shines out, but reports about confusion regarding the command and control structure of the ASF force us to return to our long standing argument in this space that the counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism campaign requires all military, paramilitary, police, intelligence and other security forces to be combined under one centralised command with a centralised data base if inroads and successes are desired against the terrorist octopus with its long arms everywhere. The traditional mistrust between civilian and military institutions and discrete intelligence agencies must give way, in the interests of safeguarding the state and society, to a new security architecture capable of cutting off as many heads as the hydra of terrorism proves capable of sprouting.
Wednesday, June 11, 2014
End of an era The passing away of Nawab Khair Bux Marri, Baloch nationalist leader of towering standing and chief of the Marri tribe, brings to a close an entire era of struggle under his leadership and guidance against the usurpation of the rights of the Baloch people and the repressive policies of successive regimes in Pakistan. Born in Kohlu, Marri Area on February 28, 1928, Nawab Khair Bux Marri was educated at Aitchison College Lahore. It was perhaps inevitable, given the fierce independence exhibited by the Marri tribe under British colonialism as well as after Pakistan came into being that history would place him at the head of Baloch nationalist aspirations and impose on his broad shoulders the task of leading his people from their benighted state to freedom. Balochistan has had a tragic history since Pakistan came into being. Arguing its case for special treaty status under British rule, the Baloch opted for independence in 1947, but the province was soon subsumed into Pakistan after the Khan of Kalat, the head of the tribal confederacy of Balochistan, was forced to sign an accession document in 1948. Since then, Balochistan’s history has been full of armed resistance and repression, littered along the way with broken promises and betrayals by successive regimes. The current nationalist insurgency in the province is the fifth since Pakistan came into being. Since the state refused to accommodate the demands of the Baloch for rights and control over their own resources, rebellion became the leitmotif of Baloch nationalists, a position that continues to date. Nawab Khair Bux Marri remained a towering, charismatic leader throughout his adult life, suffering repeated imprisonment and harassment, including a treason trial in the Hyderabad Conspiracy Case in the 1970s. Imprisoned by Bhutto and released by his nemesis General Ziaul Haq, Marri chose self-imposed exile in Afghanistan after his release and only returned to Pakistan after the Najib government fell and the Mujahideen took over Kabul in 1992. Since then, until his arrest once more in a trumped up case of murder in 2001, a case that eventually led nowhere and from which he was released after 18 months of incarceration, Marri had been living a relatively quiet life, away from the turmoil of his past. However, the outbreak of the current nationalist insurgency in 2002 inevitably put him squarely back in the limelight, irrespective of his ill health causing his absence from active politics. The current nationalist insurgency spawned a range of groups that seem to have little or no coordination amongst them. This has been the curse of the Baloch nationalist cause throughout its history: its inability to unite under one leadership. With Nawab Khair Bux Marri’s passing away, the Baloch cause has lost its most respected and influential leader. The aftermath of his going is likely to play out in maintaining, if not deepening the divide amongst the nationalist groups active in the mountains and in self-imposed exile. The Balochistan case has suffered from the sheer lack of weight of Baloch voices in the federation, leading frustrated youth to resort to armed resistance again and again. This is a pattern yet to be overcome, the missing factor being the state’s incapacity so far to see the Baloch question as a political problem of long standing that needs a political approach to resolve their ageless grievances rather than a hardline repressive one. The latter has been tried repeatedly in the past 67 years and has failed to produce anything positive. If anything, it has merely deepened the alienation of the Baloch people. It is a sad comment to make that the passing away of Nawab Khair Bux Marri may have made that political solution even more difficult, given the likelihood that the historical disunity of the Baloch, which has weakened their voice, is likely to be exacerbated in the absence of the formidable presence of the pride of Balochistan and one of its most eminent sons.
Tuesday, June 10, 2014
The aftermath The terrorist attack on Karachi airport that started on Sunday night appeared, at least according to official sources, to be over by Monday afternoon, when the military authorities declared the airport purged and flights resumed. However, on Tuesday there were unconfirmed reports of some more terrorists than the 10 killed being found and engaged within the airport complex. The total toll so far is 30 killed, including the 10 terrorists, and 26 injured. However, by all accounts at least seven more people died after being trapped in a cold storage facility where they had sought shelter, in the midst of a raging fire and the inability of rescue teams to reach them. The attack itself centred on a peripheral part of the airport complex, a terminal no longer used for passenger traffic except for VIP flights and largely for cargo operations. Perhaps that is why the security in that area had loopholes in it. The area in question may have been peripheral, but it gave the attackers access to the main terminals and planes parked on the tarmac. The attackers came armed with rockets that fortunately missed the planes. The ‘absent’ interior minister, when he finally surfaced in Karachi on Monday, said three planes had been slightly damaged, but by and large the assets of the airport were safe. The identity of the terrorists will be confirmed after tests, but visually they have been reported to have Central Asian features, and the first guess was they could be Uzbeks. This suggestion should be placed in the context of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan’s (TTP’s) claim of responsibility, in which they said they had been aided in the attack by ‘allies’. If any further proof were needed, this incident highlights the existence of a ‘Terror International’ in our tribal areas, particularly North Waziristan (NW). Although the TTP claimed the attack was in revenge for their leader Hakeemullah Mehsud’s death in a drone strike, they added for good measure that it was also in retaliation for recent air strikes on their hideouts in FATA. Reports say further retaliatory air strikes were carried out in NW on Tuesday, in which nine hideouts were destroyed and 20-30 militants killed. Earlier reports that Indian-made arms and medicines had been recovered from the dead terrorists set off a chain of assumptions that our neighbour was behind the attack. This is just one more example of irresponsible media (particularly electronic) reporting. The Indian High Commissioner in Islamabad and the Indian External Affairs Ministry have denied any Indian role in these events and condemned the attack in no uncertain terms. Both Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar and Information Minister Pervez Rashid found it convenient to blame a ‘foreign hand’, a theory that usually means an attempt to shift the blame and escape responsibility. However, there is no escape from such situations. The interior minister in particular, and the federal government in general have been roundly criticised for their lack of visible presence and tackling the crisis in Karachi. This has set off the latest round of the blame game, with the Sindh and federal governments now at daggers drawn over the perceived lack of help from Islamabad. The opposition in parliament has decried the ‘paralysis’ of the federal government and asked for Chaudhry Nisar’s head. The prime minister on the other hand has called a meeting of the Cabinet Committee on National Security to address the situation arising from the Karachi events. The trajectory of events on the terrorist front since the PML-N government was elected to office last year makes an interesting study. The government had virtually hamstrung its policy options by putting all its eggs in the talks basket. Now when that approach appears all but dead in the water, the government appears confused, irresolute and directionless. As was our consistent analysis in this space since the talks process was mooted, it had little, if any, chance of success. Now that its failure is manifest, it appears that willy nilly the government is being dragged, kicking and screaming, into taking on the terrorists head on. In any case, this was likely to be the logical outcome of the government’s attempted nuanced policy of ‘restraint, containment and retaliation’, particularly the last part, which was bound to set in motion a dynamic that would burst these boundaries sooner or later. That moment has now arrived. There is therefore no time left for prevarication and policy paralysis. The government must itself take the initiative to mount a decisive offensive against the terrorists.
Sunday, June 8, 2014
Our Don Quixote One year after the May 2013 general elections, Imran Khan appears to be angry with the whole world. His bitterness stems from the perception, nay conviction, that his party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI), was robbed of its electoral victory last year. Throughout his life, Imran Khan can be accused of many things, but never any lack of confidence. If that stood him well on the cricket field and later in philanthropic ventures, no one could possibly object; on the contrary, these were grounds for admiring his accomplishments, raising his status to that of a national hero. It must be said, however, that Imran Khan’s foray into politics has proved trickier than negotiating any inswinger. After long years in the political wilderness and an abortive ‘back door’ deal with Musharraf to be catapulted into power on the basis of just his one seat (himself) in parliament, Imran Khan believed, and convinced his supporters, that his time had come. Starting from the ‘tsunami’ rally at Minar-e-Pakistan in December 2012, the PTI fell for its own propaganda that it would sweep the 2013 elections, flying in the face of a sober assessment of its strength, party machinery and constituency-based electable candidates. Measured against these ground realities rather than the PTI’s wishful thinking and flights of fancy, the results of the elections would have normally been considered a triumph for a party with hitherto zero representation in parliament. The PTI’s 35 seats in the National Assembly and becoming the largest party and therefore in a position to form a coalition government with the Jamaat-e-Islami in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) would by any criterion be considered a formidable performance. However, there are none so blind as those who refuse to see (the truth). The result of this false bravado centred on a self-perceived ‘stolen’ election victory has been to pitch Imran and the PTI on the path of a fool’s errand. The list of windmills our Don Quixote is tilting against has by now expanded to include the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP), its election tribunals, the judiciary (including in particular former Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry), the government, the two largest mainstream parties, the PML-N and PPP, and now a media group that is already in trouble. All these ‘nemeses’ of Imran and the PTI came in for a bit of stick in the party’s anti-rigging rally in Sialkot on Saturday. Calling the 2013 elections the “biggest fraud” in the country’s history, Imran Kan lashed out at the judiciary for allegedly covering up the rigged election and failing to provide his party justice. Citing odd instances of electoral mistakes by the ECP, involvement of a DPO in a by-election and admitted ‘typos’ in one constituency’s result, he tried to weave this flimsy evidence into a grand rigging conspiracy. He went so far as to argue that if ‘four boxes’ were opened up, the whole sham would be exposed (a reference to the four constituencies whose results the PTI has challenged). Throwing both logic and caution to the winds, he demanded action under Article 6 against the PML-N and former Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry (once held in high esteem by Imran). Criticising the government on its economic policies (record breaking loans in one year, ‘pro-bandits’ budget, etc), Imran vowed he would tax the rich when he came to power and promised change was coming in KP (don’t hold your breath). Flailing around in search of a coherent critique, he touched on the curse of dynastic politics (‘monarchy’), food, shelter, clothes (the PPP’s slogan) for the poor not metro trains, and vowed to overcome the prevailing system of elections that otherwise would ensure the monopoly on power of the PML-N and PPP for the foreseeable future. Stung by criticism that his anti-rigging campaign was aimed at destabilising or toppling the present government, Imran was at pains to deny this in his rally speech as well as in interaction with reporters later. Denials notwithstanding, our Don Quixote’s tilting at so many windmills (with the conspicuous absence of mention of a powerful state institution) has given rise to, and continues to agitate perceptive observers regarding the real aims and objectives of what otherwise seems a case of ‘protesting too much’.
Saturday, June 7, 2014
Anti-terrorism landscape Amidst all the talk about an impending military operation in North Waziristan (NW), the authorities have opened the door to a resolution of the presence of foreign fighters in the Agency through the efforts of a tribal jirga. The 64-member jirga led by Haji Sher Muhammad, a grandson of the legendary anti-colonial fighter the Faqir of Ipi, comprises elders of the Uthmanzai Wazir and Dawar tribes of NW. The jirga had meetings on Friday in Peshawar with the Governor and Corps Commander on the issue. The authorities have reminded the jirga of the 2006-07 peace agreements between the government and the tribes, in which militant and of late estranged commander Gul Bahadur was included, and which laid the responsibility of ensuring no foreign fighters found refuge in NW. The charge against the tribes is that they had failed to fulfil their obligations on this count. The jirga pleaded with the authorities to hold off on the impending military operation, which they said in the past had never yielded the expected results, until they had had a chance to right the situation by expelling the foreign fighters, securing government installations and putting an end to attacks on the security forces’ convoys. They were given 15 days to implement the sense of the meetings, after which, the corps commander emphasized, all bets were off. The jirga told the governor that they would also try to intervene in the infighting between factions of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan to pacify the situation. It may be noted that tit-for-tat killings and attacks are continuing between the rival Sajna and Shehryar Mehsud factions. Meanwhile the National Assembly on Friday passed the Anti-terrorism (Amendment) Bill 2014 with amendments. The most significant of these was rescinding the original bill’s provisions of shoot-on-sight powers to the security forces of terrorist suspects. The forces would have to seek the permission of a Grade-17 officer or magistrate before opening fire on suspects. The question whether such an officer or magistrate would be available in real time to seek such permission in engagements where seconds count remains unanswered. In this context, the declared intent of the government to restore the executive magistracy abolished by the Musharraf regime is a step in this direction. The amendments also lay emphasis on further legislation to make the law enforcement agencies more effective, including empowering the Rangers to conduct investigations, which at present is not within their purview. Statements of witnesses could be recorded in-camera to provide protection to them, whereas suspects could be held in detention for 90 days. While the provision that any officer found guilty of arrest of a suspect on false allegations could face two years imprisonment and a fine is intended to provide protection to the innocent, what is still missing from the bill is access to family and lawyers for the detained suspects. Given our culture of torture at the hands of the security forces, there are grave fears of the miscarriage of justice by extracting confessions under torture. In the Upper House on the other hand, the opposition Senators, led by the PPP, interrogated the government about its policy on the Taliban, given that two military officers were killed in a suicide attack the other day not far from Islamabad and the fact that the government’s policy still appears in a “state of flux” without clarity whether the talks process still had any steam left in it, and if not, what would be the next policy posture to be adopted. ANP Senators drew the attention of the house to the terrible conditions in which internally displaced persons from FATA were living and how Peshawar had become such an insecure city that traffic wardens had been instructed to don bulletproof vests. No one, they complained, could come out of their house in the evening in the capital city of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP). There are reports that extortion has arrived in full force in Peshawar, forcing many well off families to flee to the relative safety of Islamabad and elsewhere. When surveying the anti-terrorism landscape, it seems clear that the ambiguity in the government’s policy on the Taliban and related issues has caused at least partial paralysis. KP is particularly sensitive, not only because of adjoining FATA, the hotbed of terrorism, but also because the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf provincial government appears friendly to the terrorists and has thereby hamstrung the law and security enforcement agencies. No one is suggesting the federal government should run amok like a bull in a china shop in the province, but discussions with the KP government may yield cooperation. But even before that, the federal government itself needs to pluck its head out of the sand and firmly grasp the nettle of tackling terrorism.
Friday, June 6, 2014
Out of Lahore Chief Minister Punjab Shahbaz Sharif, often accused during his last and present tenure of unduly favouring the capital of the province Lahore with financial allocations, big projects and development, has finally turned his attention to the relatively underdeveloped region of southern Punjab. On a whirlwind tour of Multan, Dera Ghazi Khan and Muzaffargarh on Thursday, the chief minister announced a number of decisions and projects that are bound to bring relief and even joy to the people of the area. Hitherto, with the announcement of the Rawalpindi-Islamabad metro bus service project (currently under construction), the chief minister was still being castigated for concentrating on the GT Road salient almost exclusively. Now the chief minister has sought to silence his critics by this initiative. Shahbaz Sharif announced that Multan would henceforth be considered in the category of a big city, with government employees thereby enjoying big city allowances. He also announced a metro bus project for the city of 30 kilometres length, costing Rs 30 billion, to be completed in the record time of one year, starting from the laying of its foundation stone on August 14 this year. The project would be constructed on the lines of the Dubai metro bus system. More than 150,000 people per day would benefit from it. Shahbaz Sharif said on the occasion that the sense of deprivation of the people of southern Punjab would be removed through the provision of modern health and educational facilities. In Muzaffargarh the chief minister announced the setting up of the Tayyip Erdogan Hospital (named after the Turkish prime minister), which would be a 500-bed facility. The hospital would become functional this month and Turk doctors and other staff would extend their services to it for one year. Extension work of the hospital would start this year and Rs 2 billion would be set aside in this year’s budget for the purpose. In Dera Ghazi Khan, the chief minister inaugurated the Ghazi Medical College. He also announced the setting up of a Daanish school in Taunsa that would throw open its doors to deserving boys and girls from the region, including students from the tribal areas (there is a provincially administered tribal area in the district). The development of Fort Munro, the only tourist spot in southern Punjab, was also addressed by the chief minister after a briefing on the project. Shahbaz Sharif ordered the installation of a chairlift and cable car service in two phases. The road from Muzaffargarh to Fort Munro would be expanded to a dual carriageway. In sum, Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif has brought his phenomenal energy and hardworking style to addressing the problems and sense of deprivation of the southern reaches of Punjab. It may be recalled that that sense of deprivation has led from time to time to the demand for a separate South Punjab province or its variant, two provinces of South Punjab and Bahawalpur. These variegated demands at various times since the provinces were restored in what was then West Pakistan in 1970, have essentially reflected the resentment of the people of this underdeveloped region at the neglect they blamed ‘Takht Lahore’ (the Lahore throne) for. Multan is arguably one of the oldest living cities in the country, with a rich culture and history, including a track record of pushing back against domination from Takht Lahore. It is indeed a welcome development and a sign of the political wisdom of the Punjab government that it has met head on the complaints of southern Punjab and the chief minister has promised more to the people of the region than they can even dream of. Dreams and hope are what can keep people’s faith in governments and the future alive. Now observers will keenly watch a process of development that could be a life and game changer for the hitherto neglected Lahenda (southern, downward sloping) area of Punjab, with the accusation of concentration solely on central Punjab becoming history.
Thursday, June 5, 2014
The Budget and the poor Stung by criticism that the Budget 2014-15 is tilted in favour of the rich and offers only scraps and crumbs from the table for the poor, Finance Minister Ishaq Dar was at great pains to defend the Budget as not anti-poor during his post-Budget press conference in Islamabad on Wednesday. However, persistent questioning by media people on the concessions and relaxations to the business community and the impact, for example, of the withdrawal of subsidies on the electricity tariff put the minister on the mat. Dar admitted that over 50 percent (more than 90 million) people are below the poverty line of an income of $ 2 a day (some estimates put this figure at 69 percent). He claimed his government was committed to raising this huge mass of people out of poverty. However, the consensus on the Budget is that it is business-friendly, with hardly any relief for the poor, the youth loan schemes, Benazir (now National) Income Support Programme and educational facilitation for deserving students notwithstanding. Laudable as these schemes are in themselves, they are a drop in the ocean of poverty that laps our shores. Admittedly, the straitened finances of the state leave little if any room for meaningful interventions, innovations and creative measures to offer the people groaning from inflation, unemployment and insecurity anything meaningful except token sops. Dar threatened those intending to increase prices using the excuse of the budget with strict measures (“iron fist”) to control prices. It is strange to hear an advocate of the market economy as the panacea for all our woes speak in this language. How would this ‘iron fist’ control the market and its inherent dynamic was left to the imagination. The claim that the fiscal deficit, which panned out at 8.8 percent of GDP last year, would be incrementally reduced over some years to four percent was not fleshed out, while critics point out that the raise in salaries and pensions was likely to act in the opposite direction, with resort to borrowing to meet the gap the most likely course, having its own implications for inflation. The measure to impose higher taxes on non-registered non-filers of tax returns is both a punitive step as well as an incentive to document the informal economy, a laudable objective that seeks to broaden the tax net, a badly needed policy to raise revenues and lighten the burden as far as possible on the honest tax payer being treated as the proverbial goose that lays the golden egg. Large scale retailers such as shopping malls and smaller retailers in the bazaar have been dealt with by imposing the condition of electronic sales registers for the former and a presumptive tax based on electricity consumption on the latter. Parliamentarians have been put on notice, quite rightly, that they would be deprived of all allowances if they fail to file tax returns by June 10. The finance minister may have bent his back to defend the budget from charges of being pro-business and anti-poor, but the reactions of the respective communities says it all. The business community has been full of praise for what they call a growth oriented budget, while the working classes see nothing in it for themselves. That perhaps is why the clerks and teachers protesting against the budget were dealt with harshly in Islamabad on Wednesday (beaten black and blue according to accounts). The trade unions are up in arms, the agriculture sector feels it has been treated like a poor relative and the apprehension that without some relief to the masses the government may face more than its share of protest over the coming fiscal year cannot be dismissed lightly. The problem with the government’s approach is that it still adheres to the theory that the business class will pull the economy out of the doldrums and the (discredited) trickle down theory will do the necessary for the people at large. A perceived business-friendly government may have the luxury of indulging in such flights of fancy that recent history belies even in stronger economies than ours. But the government will have to burn some midnight oil to find ways and means to lighten the crushing burden of the masses or face increasing trouble on the streets ahead.
Sunday, June 1, 2014
Chickens coming home to roost One soldier was killed and two wounded, against 16 Taliban attackers dead in an assault on border posts in Bajaur Agency on Saturday. Around 200 militants are said to have been involved in the attack, which was repulsed with helicopter gunship and artillery support. The attackers retreated across the Afghan border after a three-hour firefight. The Afghan province of Kunar is opposite the Bajaur Agency, where Mullah Fazlullah, originally of the Swat Taliban and currently chief of an increasingly divided and fractured Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) is based. This is not the first time such a cross-border raid has been mounted. As recently as May 25, an assault took place in the Mano Zangal area. Previously, we have witnessed massed attacks across the border by as many as 500 militants, indicating their ability to muster big numbers for such forays. Inevitably in the case of such cross-border clashes, Pakistan summoned an Afghan envoy to protest the attack from its soil, while the Afghan authorities accused Pakistani forces of killing at least four Afghan civilians in indiscriminate shelling into Afghan territory, a charge denied by the Pakistan foreign office. This clash and the previous ones highlight the precarious security situation on the volatile Afghan-Pakistan border, particularly in the Bajaur salient. Mullah Fazlullah may have decided to overcome the fractious disputes between Mehsud factions in the TTP to concentrate on cross-border enhanced action. The influx of militants from Bajaur earlier and North Waziristan of late has obviously strengthened his hand in this endeavour. Also inevitably, such cross-border exchanges are more than likely to ratchet up tensions between the two neighbouring countries and the US/NATO forces on their way out of Afghanistan. Pakistan complains that previous such attacks from Afghan soil have not received the attention of the Afghan or western forces despite protests being lodged. One does not know the western forces’ attitude to the matter, but it would come as no surprise if the Afghans are not exactly unhappy to see Pakistan hoist by its own petard through its policy of creating and nurturing jihadi proxies, only to see such forces turning on and biting the hand that fed them for so long. Poetic justice, the Afghans could be saying with a quiet chuckle, for Pakistan’s interventions in Afghanistan over the last four decades. Whatever momentary satisfaction that may bring to the Afghans who feel hard done by at Pakistan’s hands, the inescapable fact is that it is in the interests of both sides to cooperate in the fight against their respective terrorists. One major obstacle to such cooperation is the continuing presence of the Afghan Taliban on Pakistan’s soil and their apparent freedom to mount attacks inside Afghanistan from such safe havens. We have argued for a long time in this space that Pakistan should seriously revisit its policy of using jihadi proxies for foreign policy objectives before the ‘reverse osmosis’ of Pakistani militants finding refuge across the border and mounting attacks on Pakistan comes to pass. Well, we seem to have arrived at that point by now. The critical policy reformulations that would see an abandonment of support to and the use of militant proxies is nowhere in the offing. Even if our security establishment has trimmed its sails to a more modest objective of ensuring the Afghan Taliban get a stake in power in Kabul rather than a total victory, this ‘reduced’ objective still pits us against the Afghans and their western backers. And arguably, the benefits of this policy have long ago been overtaken by its high costs (witness the emergence and growth of the home grown Taliban, who enjoy a nexus with foreign terrorists, al Qaeda, and the Afghan Taliban). To persist with a policy stance that has long ago been overtaken by developments in and around the region, is to repeat the folly until its serious consequences unfold. It is still not too late for Pakistan to see the wood, not just the trees, by becoming sensitised to the threat TTP terrorists based on Afghan soil will pose, particularly in the near future after the bulk of western forces have left Afghanistan by the end of the year. The window of opportunity to pre-empt and deal with this threat will not remain open forever, and may well snap shut by end-2014.
The die is cast A top-level meeting of the civilian and military leadership was held on Friday, presided over by Prime Minister (PM) Nawaz Sharif. While the PM had things to share regarding his visit to India, COAS General Raheel Sharif briefed the meeting on his recent visits to Quetta and FATA. In Quetta, while addressing officers at the Staff and Command College, the COAS had reiterated his confidence that the Pakistan army was fully prepared to defeat any threat. The outcome of the top level meeting was to revisit the strategy against terrorism, particularly in the light of the situation in North Waziristan (NW), the split in the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), and the reported ‘going rogue’ of a pro-government militant, Hafiz Gul Bahadur. On the first, recent air strikes and troop assaults on militants’ hideouts have yielded at least 70 militants and some of their commanders killed, while local reports say the casualties are closer to 100 and include women and children. Lack of media access to the area hinders independent confirmation of such contradictory claims. Nevertheless, the pain inflicted by the assaults in retaliation for terrorist acts has persuaded Hafiz Gul Bahadur’s group to issue a pamphlet asking people to abandon contacts and links with the government authorities and move with their families closer to the Afghan border from where they will find easier escape in the event of what the group says is an expected military offensive on NW. It is interesting to note that Hafiz Gul Bahadur, who has traditionally been described as a pro-government militant, accuses the military of in all respects tearing up the 2007 peace accord through its recent attacks, some of which have clearly struck either members of his group or their sympathisers. Meanwhile Maulana Fazlur Rehman continues to plough his own furrow in not only predicting a military offensive in NW, which he says will lead to all out war, but plugging his favourite theme of peace talks with the militants through a tribal jirga. It was the government’s refusal to countenance this suggestion, he says, that persuaded his party to withdraw from the peace talks process between the government and the TTP. Of course, as we have argued consistently in this space, that talks process is arguably well on the way to hitting a dead end, if not already dead in the water. Inherently, the government’s strategy of putting all its eggs in the talks basket (backed, ironically it must be said, by the All Parties Conference consensus) failed to see or acknowledge the very real obstacles in the way of a negotiated peace settlement with the TTP since there was little if any common ground between the respective positions of each side, the government insisting on adherence to the constitution (and by implication the democratic system under its umbrella) and the TTP rejecting this and insisting on their version of sharia.
The stop-go talks process seems finally to have ground to a halt, not the least because under the policy of retaliation, each terrorist act has been met by a stinging assault by the armed forces, at least since General Raheel Sharif has taken over the army’s command. The government’s strategy of ‘restraint, confinement, retaliation’ seems still to hold the field, although the last, retaliation, has set off its own dynamic on the ground, further eroding the chances of the talks succeeding. There still appears to be some reluctance to launch an all out assault in NW though, not the least because of apprehensions that it would fuel terrorist acts throughout the country and lead to the fresh internal displacement of thousands of people. Given that the authorities are still struggling with the pending issue of the Tirah Valley internally displaced people, not to mention the earlier South Waziristan displaced, a fresh exodus of people fleeing the fighting would further strain the resources and capability to manage of the authorities. That perhaps is why targeted retaliatory precision strikes, bringing more accurate air power into play, are considered the least cost and preferred option so far. However, if the ‘defection’ of the Sajna group of Mehsuds from the TTP may be considered a fruit of the nuanced strategy of the government, Hafiz Gul Bahadur’s going rogue reflects the complexity and protracted nature of the fight against armed terrorist groups in FATA.