Wednesday, Nov 30, 2022

The Slipping Frontier

In the absence of a national policy on combating the multiple insurgencies afflicting Pakistan, a currently clueless provincial government has little chance of success in its efforts to end the NWFP's "descent into chaos".

The Slipping Frontier
The Slipping Frontier

Even as Pakistan grappled with a President who refused to go ‘quietly into the night’, the state of play in the conflict afflicted North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) has worsened in recent weeks. With General (Retired) Pervez Musharraf gone, the multiple insurgencies across Pakistan will continue to create greater troubles for the already embattled coalition government. 

On August 15, 2008, NWFP senior minister and head of the government’s peace committee, Bashir Ahmad Bilour, claimed that the ‘peace agreement’ with militants in Swat was still intact, and the government remained open to negotiations to end the unrest. Commenting on the ongoing military operations against the militants, he argued, "This [operation] is the government’s reaction to the militants’ actions (which) they took in violation of the peace agreement signed with the government." Further, Bilour asserted that the government was ready to talk to the militants in accordance with the peace deal that the two sides signed on May 21, 2008. He claimed the militants did not honour the agreement. The NWFP government re-launched military operations against the militants on July 29, after the latter demanded that the provincial government quit within five days for "not honouring the peace agreement". For the record, the May 21 peace accord did bring a momentary peace in the province, and remains formally in place, since neither of the two sides has scrapped the pact.

670 persons, including 297 civilians, 101 security force (SF) personnel and 272 militants, have already died in 2008 (data till August 15), and there has been a drastic increase in the violence after the breakdown of the truce on June 9. Since then, at least 302 persons – 90 civilians, 47 SF personnel and 165 militants – have been killed. [It is necessary to note that, given Islamabad's understated accounts, the suppression of the Press and erratic reportage from all the conflict zones, the actual numbers of fatalities could be considerably higher than those indicated above].

In the renewed military offensive ‘Operation Rah-e-Haq’, the militants’ positions in Matta and Kabal, the Taliban strongholds in Swat District, have been targeted vigorously. The SFs are presently hitting the mountain positions of the Taliban in the Peuchar, Namal, Sijbanr, Gat Shawar and Wenai areas of Matta Sub-division and Totano Banda and Deolai of the Kabal Sub-division. In response, the Taliban has, unsurprisingly, targeted the military in Swat, and, for the first time, the various security checkpoints in Saidu Sharif and Mingora, the Headquarters of the Swat District. A number of girls’ schools have also come under sustained attack. While the Taliban has targeted these two towns in the past through bomb blasts, including suicide bombings, the present series constituted the first attacks on girls' schools and SF checkpoints. In the post-truce period, the Taliban has also attacked policemen in the adjoining Buner District in what is a clear indication of their spread and influence, as also their intent to widen the conflict. Analysts like Rahimullah Yusufzai note that the militants will also try to launch attacks on SFs in the other adjoining Districts, such as Shangla, Upper Dir, Lower Dir and Malakand Agency. Yusufzai observes, 

Despite denials by government functionaries, it appears that Taliban have been trying to organise in the two Dir Districts either by finding local recruits or by sending their members from other places to Upper Dir and Lower Dir. The attacks on girls' schools in Upper Dir was clearly evidence that Taliban militants had infiltrated the District and found some local supporters. Artillery shells fired by the military in Swat also reportedly fell in the mountains of Nihag Darra in Upper Dir District and fuelled concern among the people living there. 

The attacks on girls’ schools have raised the concerns not only of security agencies but also of others in the government and civil society. The militants in Swat destroyed 28 girls’ schools during the fresh wave of violence that erupted on July 29, in addition to 59 schools they had set alight or blown up in months of militancy before May 21. There were 566 girl schools — 489 primary, 51 middle, 22 high and four higher secondary schools — of which 159 schools are now non-functional. Of these, 87 have been torched or destroyed, while 62 have shut down due to the refusal of female teachers to attend, in view of precarious security situation, putting an end to the education of 17,200 girl students. The female literacy rate in Swat stands at 22.89 per cent and that of males at 52.79 per cent, with an overall literacy rate of 37 per cent. The dropout rate, particularly among girl students, has is rising dramatically. 

Taliban spokesman Muslim Khan has said the aim of destroying schools was to pressure the government and replace the education system: 

At present, we are using the torching and bombing of schools as a war tactic against the government. Also, this education system has been producing corrupt people and needs to be reformed. Musharraf and Zardari are the production of this education system, but what (have) they made of this country. 

Muslim Khan warned that, after the destruction of girls’ schools, it would be the turn of boys’ schools. Maulana Fazlullah, the Taliban leader in Swat, has termed female education "a source of obscenity."

Military authorities have said their operations would continue till the areas were cleared of militants. "This operation is going to be decisive," Brigadier Zia Anjum Bodla, Army’s Divisional Commander, told journalists at the Circuit House in Gul Kadda on August 4. On its part, Taliban spokesman Maulvi Umar told Dawn that they would "retaliate with full force" if the government "imposed a war" on them. On July 30, the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) threatened to mount attacks across Pakistan in response to the renewed military action in Swat: "We will start operations in the entire country, in the entire province... because we consider this an action against all Taliban… We will soon take a decision on starting operations". 

An index of the grim situation in the Frontier is visible in the fact that the provincial capital, Peshawar, is extremely vulnerable, with militants pounding at its doors. As the Taliban advance gradually towards Peshawar, the NWFP Police Chief and top administrators issued warnings that, unless the government takes decisive action, Peshawar would fall. "Peshawar is in a state of siege and if Peshawar falls, the rest of the Districts in the NWFP would fall like ninepins", an official told Dawn on June 25, 2008. Peshawar hosts the headquarters of the Army’s 11th Corps, the paramilitary Frontier Corps, the Frontier Constabulary and the Police. Police Stations in rural Peshawar have long given up patrolling at night "after a contingent was blown up by a rocket-propelled grenade and charred bodies of policemen were retrieved and buried without allowing their dear ones to see their faces for the last time." 

According to journalist Ashfaq Yusufzai, "Not one of Peshawar’s 30 police stations stays open after 8 p.m. Police in rural Peshawar have stopped night patrols after a patrol was blown up in a grenade attack on May 29." Militants operating in the Matani, Adezai, Badhber and Mathra areas of Peshawar have regularly been attacking girls’ schools, CD and video centres, barber shops and Police establishments. Apart from the fact that rocket attacks were on the increase in Peshawar, militants have also resorted to blowing up electricity towers, a tactic applied regularly in Balochistan. Peshawar, with an estimated population of 2.3 million and counting, for instance, was plunged into complete darkness as militants blew up the 500KV major pylon near Sheikh Mohammadi Grid Station in the early hours of August 8. The blast also caused power suspension to the entire Peshawar District and some parts of the Southern Districts – areas of Kohat, Hangu, Lachi, Gorgorai and Pabbi. An official of the Peshawar Electric Supply Company said the attack was a reaction to the anti-Taliban operation in the Matni area. The same pylon had been blown up by militants on May 12. According to the Globe and Mail, militants have started openly entering Peshawar to threaten businesses they disapprove of, such as music shops.

In reality, the augmented presence of the Taliban in Peshawar is not unusual. They have always had a significant presence in the town and in the surrounding regions, including the Khyber Agency, Darra Adam Khel, Mohmand Agency, Shabqadar, Michni and Mardan. Furthermore, the capacities to repel any Taliban push towards Peshawar are lacking. For instance, the Inspector General of the NWFP Police, Malik Naveed Khan, said at Peshawar, on June 12, 2008, that the province had a 40 percent deficit in Police Stations and Police Lines buildings.

A trust deficit has dominated the dialogue between the government and the rebels. While the Taliban, operating under the command of Maulana Fazlullah, have claimed that the government has not withdrawn troops nor vacated SF checkpoints nor released imprisoned militants, as agreed, the provincial government and security agencies argue that the Taliban has not disbanded its militia, they continue to carry out suicide attacks and to target the SFs and government installations. 

The NWFP government is currently deliberating a three-year ‘comprehensive peace plan’, with an estimated cost of approximately USD Four billion which aims at reducing the militancy by 30 per cent. Among its objectives are the reduction of attacks on security forces, prevention of suicide attacks, reversal of the loss of civil governance, retrieval of areas lost to militants and regaining the space currently dominated by the forces of radical Islam. Within this rubric, the provincial government intends to: 

  • Increase the Police force with additional 14,000 personnel 
  • Mobilise around 4,000 village peace committees 
  • Modernize at least 500 seminaries 
  • Rehabilitate 12,000 former militants 
  • Generate at least 7,000 new jobs per annum for educated youth 
  • Generate more than 10,000 new daily wages jobs through infrastructure projects 
  • Initiate reforms in the Police force and a revival of the executive magistracy 
  • Set up 1,000 community FM radio stations 
  • Capacity building in the Police and Frontier Constabulary, including training and increasing their strength 
  • A Provincial Livelihood Programme to develop an income-generation strategy 
  • Closer co-ordination and a mechanism for institutional support among various security agencies, including the Army, Frontier Corps, Frontier Constabulary and the Police 

Khalid Aziz, a former chief secretary of the province and part of the Plan drafting process, has however, conceded that the provincial government does not have the capacity to implement such an all-encompassing plan, and has the capacity to utilise only up to USD 800 million. Chief Minister Ameer Haider Khan Hoti, though, is optimistic that international donors would respond to his call for contributing to the plan: "There is a great deal of interest. The Saudis, Americans, European Union, Scandinavians and Chinese have all shown interest in the peace plan." It remains to be seen how foreign funding for a security plan will be realized in a country like Pakistan where anti-American and anti-West sentiments are constantly on the high, and where the state’s capacities for implementation are poor and are being further and continuously eroded by militancy. 

The provincial government claims to have adopted a ‘multi-track approach’, instead of focusing merely on a ‘military solution’. However, this approach does not appear to have registered much of a beginning. On the one hand, the dialogue with the Taliban has remained a non-starter, while, on the other, military responses have only deepened the conflict. Complicating the issue for Islamabad is the fact that both negotiated settlements and a recourse to the use of force alone have augmented radicalization in the region. 

A critical objective of any plan to bring normalcy to the conflict-wracked Frontier must be the implementation of a compatible strategy in FATA. Peace cannot be achieved in the NWFP without first achieving normalcy and a semblance of order in FATA. There is, for instance, a clear link between the militancy in Swat and Bajaur Agency in the FATA. The Taliban have been sending fighters from Bajaur and other tribal areas to reinforce the militant ranks in Swat whenever the need arises. In fact, the Taliban are able to "receive reinforcements from all over NWFP and even from other provinces in times of need."

Peace in Swat is also linked to the militancy in Darra Adam Khel, Hangu and Waziristan. The NWFP government has, in fact, held a dialogue, separately, with the Taliban in Darra, Hangu, and Dir, and has also resorted to military operations in these areas. A combination of dialogue and force is being used across the NWFP and FATA. Multiple cease-fires – most of them momentary – and various dialogue tracks are currently underway, even as a military solution is sought. Such contradictions have only deepened cleavages and led to more violence. 

Since they assumed office, the national and provincial governments have been bogged down by the judicial crisis, the politics revolving around Pervez Musharraf and a serious economic crisis. In the absence of a national policy on combating the multiple insurgencies afflicting Pakistan, a currently clueless provincial government has little chance of success in its efforts to end the NWFP’s "descent into chaos".

Kanchan Lakshman is Research Fellow, Institute for Conflict Management; Assistant Editor, Faultlines: Writings on Conflict & Resolution. Courtesy, the South Asia Intelligence Review of the South Asia Terrorism Portal.


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