Clear and present danger in tribal areas

Events are moving fast forward to the final act of this episode of the war on terror in Fata. It began with the attack by the US and Afghan forces on the Pakistani frontier corp post in Mohmand agency some weeks ago in which an officer and ten other soldiers were killed.

It may be noted that shifts in strategy in this war occur gradually preceded by media messaging. We do not seem to interpret them. For instance the introduction of targeted assassination by predator pilotless planes in tribal areas was preceded by a media blitz in US which said that these areas were infested with terrorists; after numerous newspaper articles and interviews in the U.S, the predator entered service. It led to the escalation of war when collateral deaths increased.

Now for the last couple of months the media has been selling another product; this time it relates to building a demand in the public mind for undertaking operations inside Pakistani tribal areas by US troops. Was this what President Karzai referred to when he said some weeks ago that Pakistan should stop militant attacks from tribal areas or Afghan forces would enter to remove their safe havens? We all know what the capacity of the Afghan military is  it was a message from the alliance forces.

On the other hand the militants are giving their messages. Their messages lie in the pattern of their attacks. These are meant to create a rift between the governments of the region. A few weeks ago there was a Taliban suicide attack on the central jail in Kandahar which killed more than 100 people and freed 1400 prisoners. President Karzai blamed Pakistan for this attack. On July 6th there was a suicide attack on the police in Islamabad which killed 19 persons most of them policemen. This attack took place on the anniversary of the Lal Masjid assault by the Pakistan army. This attack showed the existence of a third hand since the bombing by an Islamist on an occasion where sympathizers of the Lal Masjid martyrs were present was unthinkable.

On July 7th there was a huge suicide bombing targeting the Indian Embassy in Kabul, which killed two high level Indian diplomats including the defense attach Brig. Ravi Dutt Mehta and the political counselor Mr. Rao; 56 persons died. The attacker aimed at the Indian military  it was a pointed message to stay away. The Taliban denied the attack. Indian media accused Pakistan as reflex action. Earlier on July 8, an IED was discovered on a bus carrying Indian workers to a road making project in Nimroz province. Apparently the attacks are meant to highlight the Taliban dislike for the growing Indian involvement in Afghanistan and also to prevent India and Pakistan from moving forward on Kashmir.

Incidentally the cooperation between the Pakistani and Afghan Taliban and Kashmiri Mujahideen has become visible in various fights in Waziristan, Kohat and Swat. On Jun 24th an Afghan Taliban commander Khan Agha along with five others was killed in Swat. On another front the government has lost control of the region lying between Hangu and Sadda in Kurram agency. Strong militant groups have entrenched themselves in Zargari and Doaba in Hangu district. They have been eroding the government’s security structure by kidnapping police, government officials and Shias on their way to Parachinar in Kurram.

Many of the arrested Shias were latter found slaughtered. The result is that the Shias now travel to Peshawar from Parachinar through Afghan territory where they feel more secure. A few days ago a busload of Shias, who were travelling to Parachinar through Khost in Afghanistan were attacked and kidnapped. The Afghan forces reacted and within a few hours not only recovered the kidnappees but also killed the kidnappers. It showed a high degree of professionalism by the Afghans.

For the last few months there have been numerous articles in the US media, and think tanks regarding the threat to US and world security from tribal areas  many of them have recommended US intervention. The tenor of such reports predicts US shoes on ground in tribal areas soon. Such an action would be a colossal mistake with dangerous results for Pakistan and the region. It will break the compact against terrorism. It will strengthen the militants who would welcome such a move. The publication of such reports however coincides with the US presidential elections in Nov. 2008. In any normal year a US President remains concerned about his public ratings. A President’s popularity rating influences his decisions.

This election year is particularly dangerous for Pakistan.  President Bush will be leaving office in Jan 2009 therefore any possible adverse rating has no impact on him. On the other hand Mr. Bush would like to leave office by giving one positive image of his presidency to posterity.  An average US citizen who is ignorant of foreign policy will applaud President Bush for ordering US military to go after militant’s safe havens in tribal areas, particularly in Waziristan. He has been educated to accept this as desirable. This strategy permits Mr. Bush to leave office with applause! Who really cares what the long term impact of such a move is?

Recent reports from North Waziristan and Kurram agencies indicate the movement of joint NATO, U.S and Afghan military units to the Pakistan border. Kurram and North Waziristan villages report disruption of cell phone communications, which is a precursor of military operations. Alliance aircraft also bombed Pakistani border posts on the South Waziristan border injuring nine Pakistani soldiers.

There is also a report, though unconfirmed, that the Shia tribes in Kurram have petitioned Nato forces for protection against the Taliban who have made their lives miserable. A hundred and twenty years ago the Shias made a similar petition to the British, who then annexed Kurram. Is history repeating itself?

If this report proves true then it is a huge condemnation of the government and its weak policies. The Shias may have been approached to present such a petition as a justification for intervention. It also suggests that the government is not able to protect the lives of its people. In this context, arguments about sovereignty do not hold much water.

It has been said that the duality in Pakistan’s security policies which deals with the Taliban and Kashmiri Mujahideen with kid-gloves has now come home to roost. Pakistani government and media have been critical of violation of its airspace by allied forces. However, alliance forces have disregarded such protests. It is likely that air attacks on Fata will escalate forcing Pakistani forces to withdraw from the border to prevent the embarrassment of fighting its putative allies. This will likely be followed by simultaneous aerial reconnaissance and raids to pick up villagers for intelligence gathering. The last phase will predictably be attacks on militant camps in Waziristan. It is important to note that alliance forces have advanced to the border to block the funneling out of the militants into Afghanistan. This deployment will cause problems initially for the Taliban. However, after a few weeks the novelty of the move will lose its value as the Taliban discover how to bye pass. One of the lessons of frontier warfare is that the moment you become predictable you are in serious trouble.

It is now obvious that the period of the phony peace in FATA and NWFP is over. It also shows that the weakening of institutions can lead to very serious consequences. If the allies intervene in Fata it will generate a situation which would have very serious consequences for national solidarity. Regrettably, Pakistan lacks a cohesive leadership to get on top of this crisis. She is also isolated and friendless.

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