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Has Waziristan stabilised?

The recent shift of power in Waziristan gave some hope that Pakistan had finally begun to dominate the situation in the area which was previously under Baitullah 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 criticised 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.
Pakistani efforts at reducing pressure on her embattled institutions through peace deals has been criticised by the allies and termed as a policy of appeasement adversely affecting the security of the foreign troops in Afghanistan. NATO says that the rise in insurgent attacks there 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 neutralise the hostiles. Pakistani experience of fighting in FATA has shown that the greater the use of the army, the greater the increase in militancy. There is thus a direct correlation between the two. Secondly, the longer the militancy lasts the greater 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 the NWFP and the Swat militants in May. The 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, a move which was anathema to them. Finally, a formulation was found that described it as a sin to kill a person belonging to another religion recognised by the Quran.

If Pakistan continues to fight with the tribal militants at any cost, then a stage would come when it would totally lose governance capabilities 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 also to protect Afghanistan. Our allies should realise that the primary Pakistani goal is to ensure its own security first, which makes helping Afghanistan a secondary objective. If Pakistan is destabilised, 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 counterinsurgency 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 the 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 Baitullah Mahsud who is pursuing peace. This change in heart occurred due to the pressure of his tribe after undergoing the traumatic punishment meted out in Operation “Zalzala” 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 Baitullah’s stronghold where only a few months previously there had been fierce fighting around Sararogha fort, which has now been completely destroyed. The military operation forced some 150,000 Mahsuds to leave their homes to become refugees. The plight of the Mahsud placed a heavy burden on Baitullah, which forced him to sue for peace.

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

Historically, the Mahsuds and Wazirs are a unique amongst the 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 Mahsuds into formidable tacticians and fierce warriors.

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. 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 dangers of radicalising the Mahsud much earlier.

In 1921, the Mahsud feared a similar encirclement when they fought the British to a standstill in the famous battle of Ahnai Tangi. Britain wanted to occupy Razmak, which would have threatened the Masud strongholds of Makin and Kaniguram. In this fight the British casualties were 2,000 killed and injured. They finally negotiated a 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 stronghold.

Two recent instances show that Baitullah has begun to cooperate, and if the situation is handled wisely this could reduce militancy in the region. First, during the Swat peace negotiations on May 21, Maulvi Fazlullah’s representative Muslim Khan threatened to withdraw from the negotiations. He spoke to Baitullah Masud to obtain his instructions and was advised to ensure that the peace deal was clinched. Second, when the Kohat militants refused to conclude a cease fire with the administration, Baitullah sent two of his trusted advisors Amir Mohammad and Ikramuddin to compel the militants to accept a ceasefire. This was achieved on May 28. 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 Baitullah, after being neutralised, was resurrected bizarrely by being made in charge of the distribution of compensations to those who suffered collateral damage in Operation Zalzala. 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 blackmail the state in future? Why is Baitullah being revived after being marginalised? Answers to these questions will determine the future of the militancy and Pakistan’s prospects regarding the allies.

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