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OPINION

Speeding into the Void
KANCHAN LAKSHMAN

After much vacillation and hype, and stung by targeted attacks at its very core, the military launched its long-awaited Operation Rah-e-Nijat (Path of Salvation) late on October 16, 2009, against the Hakeemullah Mehsud-led Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in South Waziristan. The declared mission objective, according to the military spokesman, is to neutralise the "centre of gravity of terrorism” in Pakistan. The decision to launch a ground offensive reportedly came hours after the military and political leadership agreed to stage the ‘final assault’ on the “headquarters of terrorism" in reaction to the series of terrorist attacks across the country over the preceding two weeks. "The ground offensive has started," military spokesman Major General Athar Abbas declared, "The headquarters of the defunct Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) will be surgically targeted to dismantle the network of the terror outfit." Abbas stated that intelligence reports had revealed that some 80 per cent of the terrorist attacks in Pakistan originated from South Waziristan, and that some 1,500 foreign terrorists were believed to be hiding in the area, in adding strength to local militants.

At the time of writing, the Government had imposed a curfew in the region, closing all link roads to and from Waziristan, and jamming all communication systems in Waziristan and the adjoining areas of the Frontier. Official sources said the military was "converging on Taliban strongholds from three directions – Jandola in the east, Shakai in the west and Razmak in the north. They said initial reports had revealed the Taliban were putting up "stiff resistance" to the Army’s advance." 90 militants and nine soldiers have died while 23 troopers were injured so far (till October 18).

Earlier, the flurry of escalating terrorist violence across Pakistan had reinforced the country’s progressive spiral towards state failure. A series of lethal suicide bombings, gun-and-grenade raids and other attacks orchestrated by the TTP and its al Qaeda allies had killed at least 152 persons and 23 terrorists and injured more than 250 persons since October 1, 2009. The most significant of these incidents included:

October 16: 15 persons, including three Policemen, were killed and 19 others sustained injuries after a suicide bomber rammed his explosives-laden vehicle into the Criminal Investigation Agency's Special Investigation Unit in Peshawar, the capital city of the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP).
October 15: At least 19 persons, including 14 Security Force (SF) personnel, were killed and 41 others sustained injuries in three separate terrorist attacks in Lahore, capital of Punjab province. All nine attackers were also shot dead by the SFs. The attacks were carried out at the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) building on Temple Road, the Manawan Police Training Centre on the outskirts and the Elite Police Academy on the Bedian Road. 11 persons, including three Policemen, were killed and 22 others sustained injuries when a 22-year old suicide bomber rammed an explosives-laden vehicle into the building of the Saddar Police Station in the military area of Kohat in the NWFP.
October 12: 41 persons - including six soldiers - were killed and 45 others were injured in a suicide attack on a military convoy in the Alpuri area of Shangla District (which borders Swat District), in NWFP. The bomber – believed to be 14 years old and on foot – targeted the convoy while it was passing through the busy Alpuri bazaar.
October 11: In a successful 18-hour operation, the SFs, including Special Services Group commandos, killed four terrorists, arrested one and rescued 39 hostages at a security office outside the General Headquarters (GHQ) in Rawalpindi, ending a siege that began on October 10. Three civilians and two SF personnel were killed, while seven SF personnel and three civilians were injured during the 18-hour operation – which culminated in the arrest of the wounded ringleader, Aqeel alias Dr. Osman. Six soldiers and five terrorists had already been killed in the siege on October 10. The Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) Director-General, Major General Athar Abbas, said three civilian hostages and two Army officials were killed while seven officials were injured in the commando operation. The ISPR chief said eight SF personnel, including a Brigadier and a Lieutenant Colonel, nine terrorists and three civilians were killed on October 10 and 11, while the total number of injured was 15 (12 Army personnel and three civilians).
October 9: 49 persons, including a woman and seven children, were killed and 90 others were injured when a suicide attacker detonated his explosives-laden car at the crowded Soekarno Chowk in Khyber Bazaar in Peshawar.
October 5: A suicide bomber targeted the United Nations World Food Programme office in Islamabad, killing five persons, including a UN diplomat (Iraqi national Bootan Ali) and two women employees. Six other staff members were injured.

Is Pakistan losing its campaign against the Taliban-al Qaeda network? The recent avalanche of attacks has predominantly targeted the Security Forces, killing at least 34 SF personnel. Coordinated assaults on October 15 against Police targets in Lahore in Punjab and Kohat in the Frontier came five days after a siege at the GHQ in Rawalpindi. It is this unwavering intent that has widened the conflict and crippled the Government, which now appears bereft of any effective strategy to counter the militant enterprise.

The fact that Taliban and al Qaeda-linked militants are widening the arc of conflict within Pakistan also aggravates the US Administration’s plans for a new offensive across the border in Afghanistan, where the war has deteriorated amidst a somewhat fraudulent presidential election.

While military operations against the TTP in the Malakand Division of the Frontier had limited impact on the ground situation, there is great expectation being generated by Islamabad’s spin doctors that an offensive against the Taliban-al Qaeda in South Waziristan would yield decisive gains. But even as this campaign is being drummed up, the momentum has shifted progressively to Pakistan’s heartland, Punjab, which is where the militancy is now dramatically augmenting. However, the escalation of violence in Punjab’s urban areas, including Rawalpindi, Lahore, Islamabad and Peshawar, and the subversion elsewhere in the province, has not attracted significant state response. On the contrary, the Government remains in denial as far as the rising terrorism in Punjab is concerned, and simply refuses to accept the reality of rising militancy in the province. The long-standing conviction that underpins the creation and support of terrorist groups as strategic assets appears to have survived the devastation of successive attacks and bombings in the heartland.

While the progressive collapse in the NWFP and FATA has been well documented, the centrifugal dynamic in Punjab and its emergence as a jihadi hub has largely been neglected. Deeper scrutiny reveals that the situation in Punjab is, in many ways, alarming and will have far reaching consequences in the immediate future for Pakistan. It is useful to note that there have been 152 terrorism-related incidents in Punjab just in 2009 (till October 18) inflicting 229 fatalities, including an overwhelming 118 civilians and 77 SF personnel. The fact that militant fatalities total just 34 in 2009 clearly indicates that the Taliban-al Qaeda network has secured the upper hand. It is also evident that militants have been able to shift the momentum of the conflict by bringing the battle to the urban heartland, including the national capital Islamabad, the garrison town Rawalpindi, and provincial capital Lahore.

Alarming for the Government and the Army is the fact that renegade militant groups like the TTP are now collaborating with al-Qaeda linked groups like the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), to mount a grave challenge to the state in Punjab. There are some indications, although clear evidence is yet to materialize from the recent terrorist attacks, that militants from Punjab are rallying around the TTP to worsen an already appalling situation for the Government. "The militants want to destabilise the country and want the Government to collapse," Ayesha Siddiqa, a security analyst, declares, "The Government is in a state of denial... Al Qaeda and Taliban have been penetrating their influence in the Punjab and now it is high time for the Government and our Forces to realise this danger." In addition, an official stated that, "the real threat of sophisticated militant attacks now comes from Punjab where militants have engaged the security forces in face-to-face fighting."

At the other end, the series of attacks over the last three weeks demonstrates that military operations in Swat and elsewhere in the Malakand Division of the NWFP, and the killing of TTP chief Baitullah Mehsud in a US missile attack in South Waziristan on August 5, 2009, have had little impact on the extremists. The audacious commando-style assaults at the GHQ and on Police targets in Rawalpindi and Lahore, accompanied by incessant attacks elsewhere, clearly demonstrate that the TTP retains the capacity to challenge the state on several fronts, despite momentary setbacks in the Frontier. Militant capacities, as noted in earlier SAIR assessments, have in fact remained more or less evidently intact across the country. Further, there are some preliminary indications that the TTP has overcome the initial squabbling and power struggle after Baitullah’s death and is now regrouping rather well. The new TTP chief, Hakeemullah Mehsud, earlier thought by Pakistani and US officials to have been killed in infighting, appeared before a small group of journalists at an unspecified location in South Waziristan on October 5, vowing to avenge the killing of his predecessor and to expedite attacks on US and Pakistani forces. .

Pakistan Air Force (PAF) jets have been strafing suspected Taliban positions in South Waziristan for more than a month now, as a precursor to the much anticipated ground offensive in the region. The aerial strikes and official statements, over the past weeks, about a ground offensive have already led to a flight out of South Waziristan, and many militants would join the anticipated flood of over two million refugees from the region. Sources indicate that a substantial proportion of TTP and al Qaeda militants, in an anticipation of the ground campaign, have already moved out of the region. With the element of surprise entirely missing, continued aerial operations and a simultaneous limited ground assault would lead far more to extensive collateral damage than to enduring gains against the militants in South Waziristan, a scenario earlier witnessed in Swat.

More importantly, the ground offensive will certainly lead to an escalation of the Taliban – al Qaeda campaign of terrorism elsewhere in the country. It is highly probable that the TTP and its al Qaeda allies will attack the urban spaces and state installations across Pakistan even as the ground offensive in South Waziristan gathers pace, a pattern that was witnessed in the aftermath of the military campaign in Swat as well. Indeed, the current string of terrorist attacks is also part of a pre-emptive strategy, intended to divert SFs from their insistent focus on Waziristan. The intended message is that the state should not yield to the intense pressure from the US administration to launch a military campaign against the Taliban. The Taliban - al Qaeda have, indeed, repeatedly stated that military operations by Islamabad are meant to appease the United States, which has for long asked Pakistan to combat militants operating in the tribal region bordering Afghanistan.

Going forward, the Government, which is currently deeply divided with an intense three-way (the President, Prime Minister and the Army being the dramatis personae) power struggle, will find it extremely difficult to deal with a further spiral in terrorist violence in the cities. A highly polarised Islamabad is adding to existing complexities and, as analyst Rahimullah Yousafzai has rightly remarked, "The Government is on the defensive. It does not seem to have evolved any long or short-term strategy to counter (the attacks)."

The weeks ahead will subject Pakistan military’s capacities to an intense scrutiny, even as Islamabad’s intent and will to prosecute a long-drawn counter-terrorist campaign against a hardened enemy in its own sanctuary in the mountainous terrain of South Waziristan are brought under a scanner. Little in the evolving scenario suggests that Pakistan’s hurtle into chaos will be halted by the trajectory of current developments in Waziristan.

The writer is a Research Fellow at Institute for Conflict Management, New Delhi, India.


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