On the day I arrived in Peshawar last month, the evening stillness was broken by nine loud explosions, each preceded by the sucking sound of a projectile as it arced into Hayatabad, the suburban sprawl west of the city. Their target was a Frontier Constabulary post guarding the fence that separates the city from the tribal region of Khyber.
When I lived here seven years ago, Hayatabad hosted many Afghan refugees; those with fewer resources lived in the slums of Kacha Garhi, along the Jamrud Road to the Khyber Pass. Many established businesses here, and dominated commerce and transport in parts of the city. Some temporarily migrated in summer to Afghanistan, where it was cooler. But Peshawar was a sanctuary, as Afghanistan was perpetually at war. Now, many Afghans are leaving because Afghanistan feels safer. There are checkpoints all over the city, many kidnappings, and in the past month, there have been at least three suicide bombings and four rocket attacks, most targeting Hayatabad.
This war began in 2002 under intense US pressure, with piecemeal military action in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), a semi-autonomous region of seven agencies along Pakistan’s north-western border. The Afghan Taliban were using the region to regroup after their earlier rout: veteran anti-Soviet commander Jalaluddin Haqqani headquartered his network in North Waziristan; Gulbuddin Hikmatyar’s Hizb-e-Islami had a presence in Bajaur. However, the military, reluctant to take on pro-Pakistan Afghans, whom the government sees as assets against growing Indian influence in Afghanistan, instead marched into South Waziristan to apprehend “foreigners” (mainly Uzbeks, Chechens and Arabs). Following the regional code of honour, the tribes refused to surrender the guests and were subjected to collective punishment that soon united them against the government. Disparate militant groups coalesced into the Pakistani Taliban, distinct from and less disciplined than its Afghan counterpart. Ineffectual tribal elders were marginalised or assassinated. The leadership shifted to individuals such as Nek Muhammad, 27, a charismatic veteran of the Afghan war, a sworn enemy of the US presence in Afghanistan.
A gulf created
Although FATA had been a transit base for rebels and weaponry during the anti-Soviet struggle, this did not undermine the tribal structures or the political administration. There were no insurgents, according to Rustam Shah Mohmand, an astute analyst of frontier politics, “because the policy of the government and the aspirations of the people converged”. He suggests three causes for the present impasse: President Pervaiz Musharraf’s decision in 2001 to join the US “war on terror”; the use of indiscriminate force to support what was seen as an American war; and the disappearances and rendition of suspects, many innocents among them, given into US custody for compensation.
These combined to create a gulf between public opinion and government policy, and in 2002 led to the protest vote that brought the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA, an alliance of religious parties opposed to the “war on terror”) to power in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP). The evisceration of established institutions, particularly the office of the Political Agent, which since the days of the Raj had served as the federal government’s liaison with the tribal maliks (chiefs), worsened the insecurity. Traditional tribal structures and the concept of regional responsibility also suffered.
In 2004, after two attempts on Musharraf’s life, the government ordered 5,000 troops supported by helicopter gunships into South Waziristan. The military suffered heavy losses and the government was forced to sign a peace treaty with Nek Mohammad that briefly ended hostilities. The ceasefire broke when, on 18 June 2004, the young amir was assassinated in a US drone strike for which, in the first of many such incidents, the Pakistani government claimed responsibility, rather than admit its sovereignty had been breached by the US. Two more peace deals followed, but both ended when in August 2007 Pakistani forces stormed a mosque in Islamabad held by militants sympathetic to the Taliban, an operation that killed many innocents. A sustained terrorist campaign followed, and the blowback began to hit Pakistan’s major cities. In response, the military expanded its operations into other agencies including Bajaur, Mohmand and Khyber. The fighting was intense, and neither side gave quarter. Millions were displaced, and anger against the government grew.
On the bus to Peshawar I’d met a youth, studying English literature at the University of Punjab, who was returning home to evacuate his family from the Khyber Agency. I asked him who the Taliban were, and he replied dryly “we all are”. A taxi driver showed me the flood of refugees from Khyber’s Bara region, and said the Taliban were a “phantom enemy” invented by the Pakistani establishment to justify foreign aid. He warned the government’s actions were actually creating the enemy that it claims it is at war with.
Around the time of the mosque siege the war also spilled into the mainland. Tensions had simmered since 2007 in Malakand’s Swat valley and culminated in the Pakistan army’s incursion this year into the region. The operation followed the failure of a peace settlement, the Nizam-e-Adl, that the government had signed with the Tehreek Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Muhammadi (TNSM), a local movement committed to the restoration of the region’s old legal order. Until the early 1970s, the three districts of Malakand – Swat, Dir and Chitral — were independent princely states, each with its own legal system — in Swat, a variant of sharia. Following Swat’s accession to Pakistan, the old system was superseded by Pakistan’s legal framework; however, no legal infrastructure evolved to cope with the change. Cases languished in district courts and justice was often indefinitely postponed. From the late 1970s on, this led to calls for the restoration of the old order, and in 1989 Sufi Muhammad established TNSM to formally pursue this cause.
The movement twice took up arms in the 1990s, but the governments of Benazir Bhutto (1994) and Nawaz Sharif (1999) made concessions to defuse hostilities. However, by 2002 the TNSM had all but disappeared after Sufi Muhammad led a contingent of 10,000 men into Afghanistan to fight US forces, most of whom were killed or captured. Sufi Muhammad’s credibility suffered and on his return he was whisked off to a prison in Dera Ismail Khan.
In 2005 Muhammad’s son-in-law, Mullah Fazlullah, was able to revive TNSM, with a more radical edge. The group was further strengthened by the arrival of militants fleeing US drone attacks in FATA. After the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (Taliban Movement of Pakistan, TTP) was established in December 2007 with Baitullah Mehsud as its leader, Mullah Fazlullah changed his organisation into a local chapter of the movement. With its populist rhetoric, its swift justice and opposition to the old feudal elite, it found favour with the underclass and attracted many disaffected youths. This, observed Asif Ezdi, a political analyst, was “because the state has failed [the youth], massively and comprehensively: the wellspring of Islamic militancy in Pakistan is to be found in the alienation of the mass of the population by a ruling elite that has used the state to protect and expand its own privileges, pushing the common man into deeper and deeper poverty and hopelessness”.
Rule of justice
With unemployment, easy access to weaponry and training, and rising political consciousness because of a vibrant private media, there was no shortage of angry young men to swell the Taliban ranks, especially when the war was also seen as a struggle against the entrenched elite. “In some areas at least, it has pitted landless tenants against wealthy landlords,” Ezdi notes (1). This, he says, was “in a country where ordinary people have little chance of overcoming status barriers, with the government, the political system and the elite all arrayed against them. It is this combination of revolutionary and religious zeal which makes the Taliban such a formidable force”.
However, as more power accrued to the TTP, petty criminals also joined. This not only granted them immunity from the Taliban’s brutal justice, but access to weapons and a powerful support network. They used these immediately, terrorising rivals and ordinary people alike. Following their own narrow interpretation of Islam, they banned female education; more than a hundred schools were bombed. Whatever initial support the Swat Taliban had enjoyed evaporated quickly; even the TTP dissented when its spokesman Maulvi Omar urged Fazlullah to reconsider the decision to ban girls’ education.
Eager to check the growing power of the TTP, in 2008 the Pashtun nationalist government of NWFP released Sufi Muhammad, who had renounced violence, to negotiate peace with the militants. These efforts culminated in the Nizam-e-Adl (rule of justice) legislation of February 2009, which briefly ended hostilities after the government agreed to establish sharia courts and the militants agreed to disarm. After much delay, the legislation was ratified by the central government on 14 April 2009 and, although both sides failed fully to meet obligations, some normalcy briefly returned to the valley.
Western commentators and their local allies were quick to denounce the legislation as Pakistan’s “surrender to the Taliban”. The country, they said, was on the verge of collapse, its nuclear arsenal about to land into the hands of the Taliban, who were within 60 miles of the capital. Pressure mounted on the Pakistani government and in May, when a group of TTP militants rode motorbikes into the neighbouring Buner valley, the incident was presented by the media as a prelude to a march on the capital. The tanks rolled.
While the operation succeeded in dislodging the militants, nearly three million citizens were displaced, and of those who remained, many were killed in the bombing of civilian neighbourhoods. The UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) declared it the worst refugee crisis since Rwanda, and the capacity of the international aid organisations was seriously stretched. More than 80% of the refugees were absorbed by families, friends and well-wishers; the UNHCR conceded it was only able to provide 33% of the relief assistance needed for the rest. The Pakistani government failed to provide assistance and much of the foreign aid money lined the pockets of corrupt officials. The unaffected eastern provinces of Sindh and Punjab restricted entry to the refugees; this highlighted the ethnic dimension of the conflict, since the Pashtuns see themselves as primary targets.
Yet, unlike the military operations in FATA, the operation enjoyed relatively high popular support among Pakistanis (41%). It was hailed as a success by politicians, the military and the media.
Everybody recognised that it was imperative to counter militancy and criminality in Malakand but not all agreed that force was the only way to do it. “I think [the war] was avoidable,” said Rahimullah Yusufzai, a veteran journalist and the most respected analyst of frontier politics, “but Pakistan is not a free and independent player. There was much pressure from the US and other countries, and for a variety of reasons the government couldn’t resist.”
Yusufzai dismisses the idea that the militants were a threat to the country or its nuclear assets. “The government itself is saying that there were no more than 5,000 Taliban; they were controlling Swat, they had entered Buner — how many men could they have spared to march on the capital?” Pakistan is a country of 173 million, with a million under arms and an advanced air force. “The Taliban had neither the capacity nor the intention to invade the capital. They were only interested in the Malakand division, and even there their influence was limited to three of its seven districts.” The Nizam-e-Adl encompassed the same concessions that two previous, secular governments had made, and Sufi Muhammad’s influence could have defused hostilities and marginalised the radicals.
Roedad Khan, a former federal secretary and political commentator, queries whether all political options had been exhausted. “There never was a more unnecessary war… a war more difficult to justify and harder to win. No one can be bombed into moderation and, given the unconventional methods of the insurgents, force alone has a slim chance of success since the militant doesn’t have to win, he just has to keep fighting.”
Mohmand has questions. “If the aim of the operation was to confront the elements challenging the writ of the state, it should have targeted only them. Why did the government have to invade the whole territory? By using air power and indiscriminate bombardment the government ensured that common people would suffer.” Although the government has declared victory in Swat, he argued, the success could prove pyrrhic if “the social, economic and political causes that led to the emergence of the Taliban are not addressed and comprehensive reconstruction doesn’t follow”.
Tribe against tribe
In yet another act of political myopia, Pakistan diminished its options when in September it invited members of the Taliban shura (advisory committee) for negotiations and then arrested them. The policy of arming militias to counter the Taliban (along the lines of the Iraqi “awakening councils”) is equally dangerous. In a region where blood feuds last for generations, Yusufzai notes, this means perpetual violence, pitting tribe against tribe. The government’s policy of home demolitions ignores the fact that in the frontier region a single house is shared by an extended family, and when a home is demolished for the sins of an errant son, the state creates more recruits for the insurgency.
An uneasy peace prevails in Swat today, and militant violence has declined. However, more than 200 suspected militants and sympathisers have been killed in extra-judicial executions by security forces and local vigilantes since the end of major combat operations. The population remains in a permanent state of fear: “If, earlier, people were terrorised by the Taliban, today they live in fear of the army,” says Yusufzai. “Anybody can be labelled a Talib”, he notes; some locals have chosen to settle scores by falsely accusing rivals of being Taliban sympathisers. “Your house is then demolished, you are taken into custody, and next day your body is found dumped in a field. People are very scared, they are afraid to talk, and the media” — which mostly cheered on the military — “is compromised.”
The Taliban attacks continued, accelerating in October in anticipation of the new military incursion in South Waziristan. Under the leadership of Hakimullah Mehsud, 28, a campaign of bombings began which, with calculated cruelty, hit targets in Hangu, Kohat, Shangla and Peshawar, killing mostly civilians. The attacks got more audacious as the government escalated the aerial bombing ahead of the ground invasion. Punjabi allies of the Taliban even managed a successful attack on military headquarters in Rawalpindi. Pakistan’s vulnerability became even clearer when a wave of attacks hit the heavily fortified capital.
Meanwhile the US drone attacks in the FATA region continue. Of 701 citizens killed in 60 strikes between 29 January 2008 and 8 April 2009, only 14 were suspected militants according to one investigation; the brunt is borne by civilians. Public opinion is incensed: according to an August 2009 Gallup poll, 59% of Pakistanis see the US as the biggest threat, compared with 18% for traditional rival India. Only 11% see the Taliban as the biggest threat (although that number is growing). While the poll also revealed 41% support for the military operation in Swat, a higher number (43%) favoured a political resolution. The insecurities of the Pakistani defence establishment are worsened by US assistance to India, including the transfer of advanced military and nuclear technology.
With the inducement of aid dollars, Pakistan with its poorly equipped army is trying to achieve what the US and Nato have failed to accomplish in Afghanistan. But the longer the military operations continue the more regions are likely to slip from under its control as the numbers of the aggrieved multiply, the military stretches thin and vulnerabilities increase. Already the insurgency has spread to parts of Punjab. Yet a form of military metaphysics prevails among the Pakistani elite and western commentators, who continue to hope that militancy can be bombed out of existence. Anti-war voices are denounced as Taliban sympathisers.
Odd time for war
This affinity for war is odd at a time when the Washington consensus on the good war is crumbling; Nato allies are having second thoughts. Although neoconservatives from the Foreign Policy Initiative (FPI) have tried to denounce this disenchantment with war as lack of resolve in the fight against global terrorism, what they fear is that withdrawal from Afghanistan would reduce the chances of a future attack on Iran. Equally wrong is the argument that Afghanistan could turn into a safe haven for terrorists should western forces withdraw. The political scientist Stephen Walt sees this argument as propaganda. The last thing any Afghan government would want is to give western powers another excuse to invade and occupy; and most terrorist attacks against western targets have been planned in the West (2).
The recent entry of 28,000 Pakistani troops into South Waziristan has precipitated yet another mass exodus; a third of the population has been displaced. Though the Pakistani Taliban have few supporters left, Associated Press (AP) found refugees venting their anger at the government with chants of “Long live the Taliban”. Instead of winning hearts and minds, the government is delivering them to the enemy. If the Pakistani Taliban are disliked, the government is disliked more. Despite the best efforts of the elite to take ownership of the war, the notion persists that Pakistan is fighting an American war, a view that will be harder to dispute following reports that the attack on Waziristan is being assisted by US drone surveillance (3).
According to the journalist Syed Saleem Shahzad, the military has again taken a gamble marching into South Waziristan “as it is highly unlikely to eliminate the militant threat. Indeed, the past seven or so years have shown that after any operation against militants, the militants have always gained from the situation”. Already the Taliban are regrouping in Swat, and “it is likely that by the time the snow chokes major supply routes, the Taliban will have seized all lost ground” (4). Yet the media and western commentators remain sanguine.
The day the rockets hit Hayatabad the featured article on Foreign Policy magazine’s AfPak Channel was headlined “Everything’s coming up roses in Pakistan”. The attack was attributed to Mangal Bagh Afridi, leader of the banned Lashkar-e-Islam and a former ally of the government who not long ago was credited with driving out fugitives and petty criminals and providing protection to Nato convoys. Alliances remain transient, yet another reason to refrain from arming militias to fight proxy wars. The morning after the rockets I walked to the local market to buy tanoori bread. Once sold for Rs 2, it now sells for Rs 15. Wages have stagnated and inflation and unemployment are high. On the street there was no talk of the threat to lives. Everyone complained about the impossible cost of living.
Muhammad Idrees Ahmad is the co-founder of Pulsemedia.org
(1) Asif Ezdi, “Thank you, Sufi Muhammad”, The News, Islamabad, 29 April 2009.
(2) Stephen M Walt, “The Safe Haven Myth”, Foreign Policy, 18 August 2009.
(3) Julian Barnes and Greg Miller, “US aiding Pakistani military offensive”, Los Angeles Times, 23 October 2009.
(4) Syed Saleem Shahzad, “A New Battle Begins in Pakistan”, Asia Times, 19 October 2009.