At War with Pakistan’s Taliban

After years of self-denial, Pakistani society and its government now face the reality of a dangerous – nay, existential – threat to their polity from a home-grown variant of the Afghan Taliban, a movement that was spawned by the U. S. invasion of Afghanistan and grew into a potent political force in the past three years.

The Islamist movement is headed by Baitullah Mehsud, a youthful third-tier Mehsud tribal leader at one time, and now the avowed leader of a regional rebellion against the Pakistani state. He has also declared war against the U. S. forces in Afghanistan, but in the main remains focused on asserting control over Pakistan’s largely autonomous Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and, through surrogates, over the nearby North West Frontier Province. The fear inside Pakistan and among Western allies is that, after consolidating control over these border areas, he may want to launch a takeover of the Pakistani state itself, along with its nuclear assets – a true nightmare scenario.

What makes this Tehreek-e-Taliban of Pakistan (TTP) especially dangerous is that it has managed to pull together a congeries of disparate tribal and regional malcontents, brigands, religious leaders and even the militant Sunni Punjabi groups that once were trained by the Inter-Services Intelligence Service of Pakistan (ISI) for use against India in Kashmir. The TTP and some of its components also have franchise arrangements with al-Qaeda. Indeed, suicide bombings, an import into the region by al-Qaeda’s Arab contingent, has become the hallmark of many attacks launched by the TTP.

Pakistan’s first instinct was to ignore the TTP. It tried the old British tactic of making deals with militants in the area of South Waziristan, bending even to garland rebel leaders and going to their territory to make peace: a sign of weakness in tribal culture. Such deals did not last long. Yet the government persisted. And even when a civilian government led by the Pakistan People’s Party replaced that of president Pervez Musharraf, this method of dealing with the Pakistani Taliban continued – with the same disastrous results. Some 14 deals have been made and broken over the past three years. It seems that the government has no other arrows in its quiver – except the military.

The Pakistani army recently entered into the FATA in force, with close to 120,000 troops of the regular army (since increased to over 150,000) and the paramilitary Frontier Force, trying to control the 3.5 million population of the FATA and the limited number of militants embedded within them. This was the first time since independence in 1947 that the Pakistan army entered FATA.

It soon felt itself as an alien force and was so regarded by the locals, with its predominantly Punjabi force structure unable to communicate with the local Pashto-speaking tribesmen. Moreover, a conventional force, trained for battles against India, found itself having to re-learn frontier warfare. The result was heavy losses: some 140 killed and many more wounded, and embarrassing surrenders to tribal fighters who took advantage of the hilly terrain to ambush unguarded convoys.

Pakistan’s government and army were slow to realize that the military was capable of addressing only the symptoms of the insurgency. The heart of the insurgency has been an attempt to impose a convoluted view of Islam in the name of shariah. The government has made no attempt to fight back using the language of Islam and thereby expose the invalidity of the horrific actions of the insurgents against their opponents, including attacks on girls’ schools and mosques and beheadings.

Nor has the new civilian government made an attempt to try to bring FATA into Pakistan’s political system or to upgrade the 1901 Frontier Crimes Regulations that imposed fines on whole tribes for individuals’ actions. Neither did it try to improve the justice system – until forced by the Taliban in the Swat region to press for a new Islamic system of justice, a step that led to the creation of an anachronistic system within Pakistani law.

What must be done?

Pakistan needs to stop making deals and ceding space to the Taliban. It needs to begin addressing the political and economic grievances of the people of the region by allowing greater autonomy for them and involving them in economic development decisions. It can physically and economically connect FATA to Pakistan proper with a network of east-west roads and start major infrastructure projects, including building river embankments and small dams and installing tube wells.

If Pakistan creates some 300,000 jobs, it will mop up the entire 17% “youth bulge” that currently characterizes FATA’s population profile. If this is done, the entire recruitment pool of the TTP will be eliminated.

As for the army, it must be used only for clearing the militants, and then must be supported by a paramilitary and local police force embedded in the community. The army is not equipped nor trained to hold areas besieged by local insurgents. Experience from around the world indicates that good governance, justice and strong police forces, not military, are best able to defeat such insurgencies.

The danger of keeping the army continuously involved has been proven by Pakistan’s own fractured history. Discontent among the military rank and file permeates the force, and as it reaches the upper levels often produces military coups d’etat.

Pakistan does not deserve another coup. Its civilian politicians must understand that this is not time for business as usual. They need to stop thinking for the short term and think about the future of Pakistan’s polity and its very existence as a state. Time is running out on them. And the Taliban are at the gates.

Shuja Nawaz is director of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council.  This essay was previously published in Canada’s National Post.