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Drain Pakistan's tribal swamps

By Imtiaz Gul

6 Sept 2009


Baitullah Mehsud, icon of Pakistani terrorism, is gone. His spokesman Maulvi Omar sits in jail after a tribal lashkar or army delivered him to the military on August 18. The fate of two of Mehsud’s potential successors - Hakimullah Mehsud and Maulvi Fazlullah of the Swat region is still shrouded in mystery. Two of Baitullah’s second-tier commanders were arrested from near Islamabad and Rawalpindi around August 16. And the avowed enemy of the Pakistani security establishment - the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) that Mehsud cobbled together in December 2007 - apparently stands in disarray. Hakimullah appears to have won the vicious contest for succession and the militants, too, have accepted him as the new emir. But Hakimullah’s silence suggests the TTP is still struggling to recover from the shock elimination of its supreme leader, Baitullah Mehsud. It is also not certain if Hakimullah himself is alive, or his lookalike brother is presented as the new chief to prevent further fissures within the TTP.


So what does this mean? A terminal blow to the militant forces entrenched in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) region? Does it mean Pakistan can reclaim these regions from men who adore Osama bin Laden and abhor the US and its allies? Will the Pakistani government be able to cleanse the area of militants and follow through on promises of effecting good governance and instilling a sense of political participation among FATA’s four million inhabitants? FATA’s people currently chafe under the draconian 1901 Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR), which advocates collective punishment and has been described by some activists as human rights abuse by the state.


Much has happened since US President Barack Obama’s Af-Pak policy announcement in March. Baitullah Mehsud’s elimination through a CIA-operated drone attack; the massive military operation against TTP militants in the Malakand-Swat region; unusual military-to-military engagement through General David Petraeus, head of the US CENTCOM, and simultaneous consultation between Af-Pak envoy Richard Holbrook and senior Pakistani leaders. This suggests that the entire focus has shifted to the border regions, which have been Pakistan’s biggest source of terror and violence this year. Nearly two-dozen drone strikes from across the Durand Line, and a whopping 1,375 terrorism-related incidents were reported that killed at least 2,730 people. The figures include at least 46 suicide attacks on various targets, including the army and police, between January and September 4.


The numbers also include the close-range assassination attempt on the federal minister for religious affairs, Hamid Saeed Kazmi on September 2 in Islamabad, and two deadly suicide strikes on paramilitary - presumably TTP-trained bombers near Peshawar (August 28, Khyber Agency) and Swat (August 29). Kazmi miraculously escaped but sustained a complex bone fracture near the knee. The two incidents in Khyber and Swat took more than 40 lives.


These shocking attacks drove the Pakistani military and Afghanistan-based, US-led forces to take on the militants like never before.


The TTP activities also blew the lid off their so-called striving for a Shariat system after zealots went on a killing spree in and outside FATA. Till then, the militants had managed to impose a strict social code in some of the tribal areas, which called for whipping, amputating the hands and legs of thieves and murderers and restricting the education of girls.

A string of attacks on army and government convoys in South and North Waziristan and in parts of Malakand, particularly in July and August, led to consensus within the government that the TTP militants operating out of FATA were pursuing objectives that at best could be characterized as a "direct, existential threat to the state and constitution of Pakistan."


That is why the Pakistan army and its chief, General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, began to put out a very pointed message. "Pakistan’s current fight is against extremism and terrorism. It is not a fight based on religion, ethnicity, sub-nationalism or provincialism," Kiyani told more than 1,000 cadets of the Pakistan Military Academy in Kakul, some 120 km northwest of Islamabad.


Today, the TTP stands fairly discredited. But the solution to the problem lies in attacking both the disease and its causes.

President Asif Ali Zardari’s decision to amend the 1901 colonial laws governing FATA and thereby, permitting political activity, should be seen as a welcome step. Hopefully, this will pave the way for the gradual integration of these regions and improved governance and justice delivery.


Failure to do so will leave space open for non-state actors - extremist alliances like the TTP and leaders like Baitullah Mehsud, fired up by al-Qaida. The arrest of three Russian women, including a doctor, and eight men of Russian, Chechen and Turkic origin in the last week of August suggests that al-Qaida continues to draw zealots from all over the world. Security officials fear that the current US-UK anti-Taliban campaign in the Afghan province of Helmand may push scores of al-Qaida-driven insurgents into the Pakistani tribal areas as well as Balochistan. That might further precipitate the situation in FATA.


The writer heads the Centre for Research and Security Studies, Islamabad. His book, The Al-Qaeda Connection - Terror in Tribal Areas, was published last month

Source: Times of India, New Delhi