As the Pakistani army launches a new assault on the Taliban, America hopes it is now more serious about defeating the militants
WHEN Barack Obama unveiled his new policy on Pakistan and Afghanistan in March, he gave a warning that al-Qaeda, the Taliban and other jihadist gangs were “killing Pakistan from within”. The generals who guard Pakistan’s national security had shown only “mixed results” in combating the threat, he said. They would no longer enjoy a “blank cheque”; they must show that they are fighting in good faith.
On April 26th, Pakistan gave a glimpse of this: by launching an attack on the Pakistan Taliban in parts of North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) recently overrun by the militants. It began with an assault in Lower Dir, near the border with Afghanistan, in which the army claims to have killed 70 militants and lost ten soldiers, and which displaced some 30,000 people.
On April 28th the army launched a bigger offensive in the scenic Buner valley, just 100km (62 miles) from Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital. As helicopter gunships and jets strafed their positions, the Taliban took around 70 policemen and soldiers hostage. But showing more resolve than it had previously, the army said airborne troops had been dropped behind Taliban lines and freed 18 of the captives. Major-General Athar Abbas, a military spokesman, said 50 militants had been killed in the first two days of fighting. He said it would take a week to drive the Taliban out of Buner.
This sudden violence seems to have been provoked, in part, by embarrassing media reports of the Taliban’s capture of Buner. Many of the bearded fighters had come from the neighbouring district of Swat, a Taliban stronghold, where NWFP’s government, at the army’s urging, had brokered a ceasefire with the militants in February. Under the terms of this pact, the government promised to institute Islamic law, sharia, throughout the Malakand division (whose seven districts, including Swat and Buner, make up about a third of NWFP’s area). In return, the local Taliban, led by a zealot called Mullah Fazalullah, were to lay down their arms.
The Taliban’s advance into Buner, which had resisted Talibanisation, was a violation of the deal, but at first neither the government nor the army seemed concerned. America, which had opposed the Swat deal from the start, was furious. On April 22nd Hillary Clinton, the secretary of state, said Pakistan was becoming a “mortal threat” to the world; its government and people needed to “speak out forcefully against a policy that is ceding more and more territory to the insurgents”. On April 25th she expressed concern for the safety of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal if the Taliban were to “topple the government”.
Some Western diplomats considered this scaremongering. The Taliban are near Islamabad because the capital, a 1960s new town, was built close to the rugged border area where these Pushtun tribesmen live. But there is no chance of their seizing Islamabad. If, unthinkably, the disparate warlords who make up the Pakistan Taliban were to mass together for a frontal attack, Pakistan’s army, which is 620,000-strong and well-drilled for conventional warfare, could crush them. Indeed, many pundits reckon that an Islamist takeover in Pakistan would be possible only with the army’s support.
The Taliban, almost exclusively Pushtun, are not popular in Pakistan. Though often anti-American, and bothered by a growing extremist fringe, most Pakistanis are moderate. Unlike some Taliban leaders, Mullah Fazalullah is not known to have links to al-Qaeda. Yet Mrs Clinton’s warning points to an uncomfortable fact: since 2001, despite lavish American sponsorship, including over $10 billion in military aid, Pakistan has only become more turbulent and violent.
Even the country’s president, Asif Zardari, has conceded that the Taliban hold “huge amounts of land”. The army deserves much of the blame. During a seven-year campaign in NWFP and the Pushtun tribal areas adjoining it, where 120,000 troops are currently deployed, it has oscillated between fighting militants and making deals that, typically, give militants the run of their areas in return for a promise (rarely kept) of good behaviour.
The Taliban in Pakistan are linked by ideology and Pushtun tribal kinship to those fighting in Afghanistan. In South and North Waziristan, two ever-hostile tribal areas, the local commanders, including Baitullah Mehsud, leader of the Pakistani Taliban, are widely believed to play host to al-Qaeda’s core leadership. They also send their long-haired gunmen across the border to fight Western and Afghan forces.
For America, Britain and other Western countries there is a direct connection between militancy along the lawless “Af-Pak” borderlands and jihadist bombings in Western cities. Yet Pakistan is the biggest victim of the militant tide. Around half a million people are estimated to have been displaced by fighting in the north-west. From their havens there, many jihadist terrorist groups have launched attacks on the state. Pakistan has suffered over 60 suicide-bombings in each of the past two years, on hotels, restaurants and mosques in Peshawar, Lahore and Islamabad, and on army facilities. Benazir Bhutto, Mr Zardari’s wife, a two-time former prime minister and leader of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) who was murdered in December 2007, was one high-profile victim. Foreigners are also at risk. In Peshawar, NWFP’s increasingly nervy capital, two Afghan diplomats and one Iranian have been kidnapped. America’s consul last year had her (bulletproof) car sprayed with bullets.
Even if the Taliban cannot conquer Islamabad, they might soon grab some lesser strategic place—just imaginably, Peshawar; or they could close down the motorway linking it to Islamabad. Mr Obama’s new policy, which treats Pakistan as the main threat to regional stability, is intended to arrest this slide. It will come with a lot more money, including $1.5 billion a year in non-military aid over the next five years. At a conference in Tokyo on April 17th America, Britain, Japan, Saudi Arabia, South Korea and other “friends of Pakistan” also pledged $5.3 billion in budget support and other aid. Pakistan will be expected to provide better accounting for how it spends this money; for years its squandering of America’s war-on-terror cash has been an open joke.
The mess in Malakand
Like a spectre, the Malakand ceasefire had been waiting to test America’s renewed commitment to securing Pakistan. It was agreed between NWFP’s provincial government and a veteran Swati Islamist, Sufi Muhammad, who is Mullah Fazalullah’s father-in-law, shortly before the inaugural visit to Islamabad of Richard Holbrooke, Mr Obama’s “Af-Pak” envoy. America considered the pact yet another abdication to the Taliban by an army that has sometimes inexplicably underperformed. By one Western estimate, it has lost 70% of its battles against the Taliban. It has also lost over 1,500 soldiers.
Another cause for alarm is that Swat is not like the tribal areas, which have always been largely beyond the writ of Pakistan. Swat, by contrast, is a thickly populated former tourist destination, famous for honeymooning couples and Pakistan’s only ski-lift. The Taliban’s capture of Swat therefore contained a promise of further militant expansion, even into Punjab, Pakistan’s richest and most populous province. Nor, judged on the failure of earlier deals, did the ceasefire ever seem likely to weaken the militants, as the government hoped it would. When it was eventually approved on April 13th by Mr Zardari after much anxious foot-dragging, an American spokesman said it violated the principles of democracy and human rights.
But most Pakistanis seemed to welcome the deal, believing it would end recent carnage in Swat. Since mid-2007, when Mullah Fazalullah and his followers took up arms in protest at an army raid on a jihadist citadel in Islamabad, the Red Mosque, they have blown up 200 non-Islamic schools in the district, beheaded scores of government workers and alleged spies, and periodically kidnapped companies of soldiers sent to fight them. Preaching class warfare, as well as jihad, they have seized hundreds of houses and landholdings, including many of Swat’s prized orchards. Half of the district’s police officers and many administrators have fled, as have most landowners. Around 800 people have been killed, most during a heavy-handed army action that began last October, and displaced at least 100,000 people.
The Taliban behaved repellently during that offensive. Residents of Mingora, Swat’s biggest town, awoke daily to find still-dripping corpses littering its central plaza, or dangling from lamp-posts there. They dubbed it Khooni Chowk, or “Bloody Square”. Yet almost all agree the army killed more civilians than did the militants. “The army was aiming its shells at ordinary people. Or else, did they hit our houses every day by mistake?” asks Fazal Rahman Nono, a local resident.
If few Swatis have much love for the Taliban, practically none say they want a military operation to dislodge them; nor do the army and NWFP’s government. General Abbas says that if the army had continued with its last offensive in Swat, “the whole valley would have been flattened”. He also defends the ceasefire deal; he says it has isolated the radical Mullah Fazalullah by bolstering Mr Muhammad, who was until recently in prison and disgrace, having led an army of Swatis to be slaughtered by American bombers in Afghanistan in 2001.
But far from muzzling his son-in-law’s jihadist invective—which Mullah Fazalullah once broadcast regularly, earning himself the moniker “Mullah Radio”—Mr Muhammad has echoed it. Ahead of a rally on April 19th to celebrate Mr Zardari’s signing of the ceasefire accord, Mr Muhammad was allegedly primed by the provincial government to tell the Taliban to disarm. Instead, addressing a crowd of 40,000 in Mingora, he denounced Pakistan’s constitution and said democracy was for infidels. Similarly, Mullah Fazalullah’s commanders say the deal is a first step to imposing sharia throughout Pakistan.
They clearly have no intention of ceding Swat to the government. Instead, the ceasefire has enabled them to tighten their grip on it. Last week they occupied the office of Médecins Sans Frontières, an NGO, in Saidu Sharif. In early April, they occupied the northern Swati town of Bahrain, and on April 28th shot and injured one policeman there and kidnapped another. Speaking by phone, a local resident says: “Ours is a life of fear and death.” Yet the government could probably have lived with this, if the Taliban had not embarrassed it by taking Buner.
A step too far
On April 24th, four days before the army launched its offensive, the Taliban leader in Buner, Commander Khalil, welcomed your correspondent to his requisitioned house in the village of Sultanwas. He claimed to have been sent to the district by Mullah Fazalullah to check that sharia was being followed, in accordance, he said, with the terms of ceasefire agreement. Yet he and his men had proceeded to chase away the district police and a few local resisters, killing eight. They then looted every government and NGO office and well-to-do house or business they could find. Pointing to a large trove of stolen computers, American-donated food aid and jerry-cans of petrol, he said: “We’ll give them to the poor, who really need them. These houses also belonged to rich people, who ran away when we arrived because they were scared to face our justice.”
America is delighted by the army’s subsequent assault in Buner; a Pentagon spokesman called it “exactly the appropriate response”. Some American officials believe the army will even resume its offensive in Swat; and this time crush Mullah Fazalullah. Such optimism might seem justified by a modest improvement in Pakistan’s fortunes on other fronts. Courtesy of an IMF loan of $7.6 billion, the offerings of its friends, and some penny-pinching economic management, it is no longer at risk of insolvency, as it was late last year. And in March, skilful diplomacy by the army and America averted a political crisis sparked by Mr Zardari’s efforts to have his more-popular rival, Nawaz Sharif, rendered ineligible for election. If Pakistan now has a window of relative political and economic stability, could Malakand prove to be a turning-point in Pakistan’s flagging war with extremism?
Probably not. The government has made no effort to use the ceasefire to extend its writ in Swat. Nor has it announced any plan to abrogate the deal. And the army shows little sign of wanting to resume the fighting in Swat. If this suggests Pakistan’s top brass may, under pressure from America, be doing no more than the minimum (or slightly less than that) demanded of them, it would not be for the first time. One of the tricks used by the former president, Pervez Musharraf, was to arrest a few of the former jihadist assets of the army’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency; then later release them.
America has endured many such false hopes in Pakistan. Another was in early 2007 when the ISI backed a Taliban commander in South Waziristan, called Muhammad Nazir, to expel some Uzbek militants who had found refuge there. The army suggested that foreign militants would no longer be welcome in the tribal area. But Mr Nazir did not evict his Arab terrorist guests, and in February he declared a new alliance with South Waziristan’s main Taliban commander, Mr Mehsud, the alleged mastermind of Ms Bhutto’s murder.
In a more recent setback, Abdul Aziz, head of Islamabad’s Red Mosque, was released from jail on April 16th. He had survived the army’s assault on the mosque (though over a hundred, and perhaps many more, of his followers did not) by fleeing dressed in a black burqa. Within hours of his release Mr Aziz was back in the pulpit, claiming credit for the introduction of sharia to Swat, and predicting the same for all Pakistan.
Another act of Pakistani slipperiness, the government’s failure to dismantle the latest incarnation of the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LET) terrorist group that is alleged to have carried out a murderous commando-style attack in Mumbai last November, may be most troubling. In response to strong American, British and, naturally, Indian pressure, it arrested half a dozen mostly mid-level LET members, and vowed to try them for this crime. But there is little prospect that the group’s senior leaders, currently under house arrest, will face justice. And the government has already failed in its obligation to take over LET’s assets, which include schools, dispensaries and hospitals. In Punjab, which is home to LET (a group formerly trained by the ISI to fight in Indian-held Kashmir), the government has taken over 20 LET schools and five hospitals. Yet the group is estimated to retain control over an estimated 50-70 other properties, which it holds in other names.
Pakistan’s failure to suppress LET invites the thought that the army has not entirely abandoned its old proxy. And it still considers India, against whom it has fought three full-scale wars, to be its main enemy. To some extent, this obsession with India illuminates the army’s troubles in the north-west. By maintaining its readiness for a conventional war on Punjab’s plains, it has been slow to acquire the necessary counter-insurgency skills; hence its brutish reliance on artillery fire in Swat.
Worse, the army stands accused of protecting some of its former militant allies in the tribal areas, to preserve them for future (or perhaps current) use in Afghanistan and Indian-held Kashmir. This allegation is often cited to explain the army’s failures. But there is rarely evidence for it. Increasingly, though, senior American officials decry Pakistan’s obsession with India. General David Petraeus, chief of America’s Central Command, argues that Pakistan faces greater danger from home-grown extremism. With a smile, General Abbas suggests he doesn’t think much of this: “When people come here and tell us about our neighbour, how good or bad he is, allow us to take it with a pinch of salt.”
Rigid, deceitful and, it seems, convinced that Islamist militancy poses a much lesser threat to Pakistan than America reckons, the army will always be an awkward ally along the north-west frontier. Then again America is a difficult friend for Pakistan. Its pressing objective is to stanch the flow of Taliban into Afghanistan and to crush al-Qaeda’s leadership; these are not priorities for many Pakistanis. And if the Pakistani army’s efforts against the Taliban have not been successful, it reasonably counters that the cross-border insurgency has been inflamed by America’s own blunders in Afghanistan and its missile strikes into Pakistan.
The army considers that it takes a longer-term view of what is required for its troubled north-west. In Swat, for example, it seems to think it would be fruitless to pulverise the Taliban, and in the process kill many civilians, while Pakistan’s civil institutions are too weak to fill the vacuum that would be created. This is not entirely unreasonable. Local dissatisfaction with Pakistan’s slothful and corrupt justice system—so much worse, Swatis say, than the traditional system of modified sharia that it replaced in 1969—has helped fuel Mullah Fazalullah’s insurgency.
Many also seem to believe that, once sharia is instituted, the brutal militants will fade away. Inam-ur-Rahman, head of the Swat peace committee, a group that speaks to both the army and Taliban, says: “For God’s sake, let’s implement the deal. It will bring peace.” Alas, that sounds naive. But even a government determined to crush the Taliban will struggle without the support of the local population. “Even if you take a Pushtun person to paradise by force, he will not go,” adds Mr Rahman. “He will go with you only by friendly means.”