Has Waziristan stabilized?

The recent shift of power in Waziristan provided some hope that Pakistan had finally begun to dominate the situation there, which was previously under Baithullah Mahsud’s total control. It was thought that this positive development would remove the serious misgiving of the allies about Pakistan. However, this has not happened. Instead Pakistan has been criticized by a host of US senators and military officers. I think Pakistan did achieve something remarkable in its handling of the Mahsud tribe after so many debacles; alas if only it had built on this strength!

Pakistani efforts at reducing pressure on her embattled institutions, through the peace deals has been criticized by allies and termed as a policy of appeasement adversely affecting the security of foreign troops in Afghanistan. NATO states that the rise in insurgent attacks between March and April this year is due to the peace deals. The recent establishment of a parallel Taliban court system in NWFP districts would naturally fuel such concerns.

Pakistan on the other hand feels that making peace deals is essential since they are a method for ending militancy and obtaining space to neutralize the hostiles. Pakistani experience of fighting in Fata has shown that the greater the use of the army, the larger is the increase in militancy  there is thus a direct correlation between the two. Secondly, the longer militancy lasts the greater is the erosion of Pakistani civil and military institutions. According to this perception it is in Pakistan’s interest to return to peaceful conditions as early as possible.

On the other hand, Pakistan has an international obligation to protect the sovereignty of Afghanistan from militant attacks. However it cannot do so if such a policy threatens her existence; nor does Pakistan have the capacity to provide such a 100% guarantee.

Pakistan’s good will towards Afghanistan was evident during recent negotiations between NWFP and the Swat militants in May. NWFP insisted that a successful peace agreement could not be concluded unless the militants promised to give up violence in both Pakistan and Afghanistan. For the militants it meant foregoing Jihad which was anathema to them. Finally, a formulation was found that described it a sin to kill a person belonging to another religion recognized by the Quran.

If Pakistan continues to fight with the tribal militants at any cost, then a stage would come when she would lose governance capabilities totally and in the bargain become a failed state. Unlike Afghanistan, Pakistan still possesses plenty of institutional strength which should be prevented from erosion by ending the militancy and if possible to also protect Afghanistan. Our allies should realize that the primary Pakistani goal is to ensure her security while its secondary objective is to help Afghanistan. If Pakistan is de-stabilized then Afghanistan cannot survive long. Afghanistan’s future is intertwined with the survival of Pakistan.

In other countries such a strategy is stated explicitly in a national counter insurgency document. It is not known why we don’t have such a strategy even after fighting an insurgency for the last seven years! Such a document would state very clearly what the rules of engagement are and the limit of Pakistani commitments. This would give the military and the Pakistan leadership a set of policies to be followed instead of the drift that we witness today.

During the last couple of days there have been reports of peace agreements being contemplated in South Waziristan, North Waziristan, and Mohmand agencies and in the districts of Kohat and Mardan. Why is there this sudden desire for peace amongst the militants? It is my assessment that it is Baithullah Mahsud who is pursuing peace. This change in heart occurred due to the pressure of his tribe after undergoing the traumatic punishment meted out by operation Zilzilla, conducted by the military in the Mahsud areas of Spinkai Raghzai and Kotkai and which ended recently. It was a heavy doze of awe and terror!

Apparently, the military undertook this operation as a last resort when the Mahsuds would not stop their attacks. The operation was conducted in Baithullah’s stronghold where only a few months previously fierce fighting was witnessed around Sararogha fort, which has now been completely destroyed. The military operation forced some 150,000 Mahsuds to leave their homes and hearth to become refugees. The plight of the Mahsud placed a heavy burden on Baithullah, which forced him to sue for peace.

The Mahsud was further marginalized when the route of the Wana Wazir was changed by the government from the Wana-Jandola-Tank axis dominated by the Mahsud to the Wana-Gomal route. This completely isolated the Mahsud and he was now surrounded and thus paralyzed! The destruction in Spinkai Raghzai coupled with the Wazir outflanking, bent Baithullah’s will and forced him to sue for peace. If he had not capitulated, he would have lost his leadership over the Mahsud or even been killed by them.

Historically, the Mahsud and Wazir are a sui generis amongst tribal people. Their acumen and fighting capabilities are legendary and the British were never left at peace by them. This colonial experience has turned the Mahsud into a formidable tactician and a fierce warrior.

I think the entry of the Pakistani military into Mahsud territory in 2003-04, was a massive mistake. It is not known what strategic purpose was served by this move since Mahsud lands did not border Afghanistan? On the other hand it showed that the planners did not read their history lessons. The famous Pathan scholar Olaf Caroe wrote, The Mahsud effort (against the British) was inspired by a deep-seated instinct which drove the tribe at all costs to resist subjection and to preserve their own peculiar way of life.  The military should have seen the danger of radicalizing the Mahsud much earlier.

Eighty seven years ago, the Mahsud feared a similar encirclement when they fought the British to a stand still in the famous battle of Ahnai Tangi in 1921. Britain wanted to occupy Razmak, which would have threatened Masud strongholds of Makin and Kaniguram. In this fight the British suffered 2000 causalities of those killed and injured. They finally negotiated (read peace deal) with the Utmanzai Wazirs to obtain the Razmak cantonment. The Mahsud have never forgiven the Wazirs for bringing the British to their fastness.

Two recent instances show that Baithullah has begun to cooperate and if the situation is handled wisely it could reduce militancy in the region. First, during the Swat peace negotiations on May 21st, Maulvi Fazlullah’s representative Muslim Khan threatened to withdraw from the negotiations. He spoke to Baithullah Masud to obtain his instructions and he was advised to ensure that the peace deal was clinched. Second, when the Kohat militants refused to conclude a cease fire with the administration, Baithullah sent two of his trusted advisors Amir Mohammad and Ikramuddin to compel the militants to accept a cease fire. This was achieved on May 28th. It is for these reasons that I believe we have an opportunity which can be used to bring relative peace to Waziristan and the region. But there are serious misgivings as a result of what has happened since.

Doubt was created when Baithullah after being neutralized is resurrected bizarrely by being made in charge for the distribution of compensation to those who suffered co-lateral damage in operation Zilzilla. It is at best a questionable decision!

Such dubious moves raise huge questions about Pakistan’s commitment.  For instance are we not creating another super malik, who would black mail the state in future? Why is Baithullah being revived after being marginalized? Answers to these questions will determine the future of militancy and Pakistan’s prospects regarding the allies.

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