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Fighting Pakistan’s War

by Khaled Ahmed
Illustration by Minhaj Ahmed Rafi

Illustration by Minhaj Ahmed Rafi

The Army under Gen. Raheel Sharif is showing terrorists it means business.

Early last month, Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan confessed that “peace” talks with the Pakistani Taliban had been derailed and the committees chosen by both sides had either grown impotent through resignations or become too empowered with Taliban-backing to have started politicking for their own hidden agenda for change. According to a recent intelligence report, some 69 Taliban groups are opposed to talks with Islamabad.

On April 30, amid rumblings of the talks having failed, Pakistan’s Army chief, Gen. Raheel Sharif, issued a warning to all terrorist groups: “You must accept the writ of the state, failing which, the Army is more than capable of dealing with threats from insurgents.” Sharif was speaking on the occasion of the Army’s Martyrs Day in Rawalpindi commemorating the 5,000 men fallen to terrorist attacks, and he’s making good on his word.

Earlier, on April 24, fighter jets had carried out a large-scale attack on 11 militant hideouts in the federally-administered Khyber tribal agency and the strategically crucial Tirah Valley killing scores of terrorists. This was a repeat of the February strikes on the same targets which had accounted for 35 dead militants and the destruction of an IED-making factory and a huge cache of arms, ammunition and explosives.

In January, the military received public acclamation when its jets and helicopter gunships attacked villages in North Waziristan killing at least 40 militants. This was the first use of fighter jets there since 2007, when a ceasefire agreement was reached with the agency’s tribal chiefs. This time, no one bothered too much about the collateral damage the media had moaned about when CIA drones had attacked the same targets. The reason was clear enough: the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan was talking “peace” with the government while simultaneously committing deniable murders and robberies, laying claim to a state it yearns to convert into a caliphate of divinely ordained pieties.

Point Break

Pakistan is slowly but finally turning away from the all-parties consensus struck by politicians to conduct talks with the Taliban. It now appears that Pakistan is about to start its own war against terror. And the signs are auspicious. A split has developed in the Pakistani Taliban between rival Mehsud clans; the battleground for this internal mayhem is both North Waziristan and South Waziristan. Over 50 Taliban have been killed by their erstwhile comrades in April alone. On May 6, six were killed in South Waziristan’s Tank. The following day, the Taliban splinters fought another deadly battle in North Waziristan’s Shawal.

The Taliban split could be repaired through further bloodshed.

Considered within the framework of strategy, the first sign of a weakening enemy may be at hand. It is up to Pakistan to pursue the policy started with the targeted Air Force operations and push the Taliban toward a conclusion aimed at reviving the writ of the state in affected areas and retrieving the Constitution from its slow demise while the state sleepwalks into talks with the enemy.

Last year, when Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s government was unconvinced that the U.S.-led war on terror was in Pakistan’s own interest, some 1,025 civilians and 475 security personnel were killed in terrorist attacks. The people suffering these attacks became quickly disabused and started agreeing with the international view that the country is facing serious challenge from terrorist groups like Al Qaeda, Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, the Punjabi Taliban, and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. The earlier brainwash that pushed Pakistan into appeasement and gradual surrender was evaporating under conditions of widespread carnage and extraction: The Taliban had reportedly squeezed half a billion dollars from Karachi alone in one year. In Lahore, most of the extortion calls made to businessmen were traced to North Waziristan from where orders were given to local operators to kill in case of default.

Though handicapped with an internal split, the Pakistani Taliban haven’t taken kindly to the military strikes and have retaliated wherever they can. On May 1, they killed Malik Qadir Khan, a pro-government tribal chief who had expressed dissatisfaction with the peace-talks process. The retaliations signal that the Taliban split may possibly be repaired through further bloodshed.

It looks as if General Sharif has his military instincts right: the time may have come to fight Pakistan’s own war against terrorism before it is too late. And the big change in Afghanistan might be one of the signs presaging it. Even as he spoke on Martyrs Day, Afghan troops backed by ISAF air power killed at least 60 militants out of the 300 belonging to the Haqqani network trying to cross the Pakistan-Afghanistan border from their safe haven in North Waziristan.

After a long time, Pakistan and the international community seem to coincide on the terror incubating on Pakistan’s territory, and the biggest terrorist group holed up in Pakistan is the Haqqani network—of which Adm. Mike Mullen, the then chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, alleged in 2011 was “one of several extremist organizations serving as proxies of the government of Pakistan.”

End of the Affair

There are rumors afloat that Pakistan is about to ditch the Haqqani network (which represents the “good” Taliban). The first sign of this came last year when Nasiruddin Haqqani, the group’s chief fundraiser and alleged liaison with the Pakistani security establishment, was gunned down near Islamabad. The Pakistani Taliban, linked with the Haqqani network through Al Qaeda, blamed the murder on the Inter-Services Intelligence agency.

If this report is correct, some irony will be rubbed off from the statement Prime Minister Sharif made at 10 Downing Street on April 30 to his British counterpart, David Cameron: “Pakistan will not allow its land to be used against any country.” He got back a very pregnant answer from Cameron: “The enemies of Pakistan are my enemies too because we want to defeat the extremism, the terrorism that threatens your country and so many others in the region.”

Appropriately, in the background, in the typically rowdy British parliamentary style, lawmakers demanded that British aid to Pakistan be terminated unless it can be proven that the funds are helping stop Islamic extremism. Pakistan is the largest recipient of British aid; Islamabad is set to receive £446 million this year alone. The U.K. is giving funds to Pakistan not only for not exporting terrorism (through groups like the Haqqani network), but also for stamping out extremism in Pakistan that threatens the U.K. through its vast Pakistani expat population.

Pakistan is in dire economic straits. This could be a blessing as there is hardly any other internal persuasion to end extremism and act against the Taliban and the Haqqani network. But some Pakistani legislation, like the blasphemy laws, is so extreme in religious discrimination that it may not be able to find a conceptual basis for opposing extremism.

Triangle of Error

In Fountainhead of Jihad: The Haqqani Nexus, 1973-2012, Vahid Brown and Don Lassler place the Haqqani network in a triangular relation with the Pakistani Taliban, the Pakistani military, and Al Qaeda: “All three of these groups rely on the Haqqanis for the latter’s unparalleled capacity to deliver anti-regime and anti-Coalition violence in Afghanistan—a capacity that, again, is itself built partly on the Haqqanis’ relations with these groups. Pakistan is determined to limit the influence of its archrival India in Afghanistan, and the Haqqanis have proven willing to direct their violence toward this end.”

The Haqqani network reportedly gave satisfaction to some elements in Pakistan by bombing the Indian Embassy in 2008. That satisfaction may have worn off, as signaled by the murder of Nasiruddin Haqqani, but to chart a new course Pakistan may additionally need a new attitude toward the region. The book says: “So long as Pakistan’s Army remains committed to unilaterally shaping the post-American future of Afghanistan in its perceived interests, the Haqqani network will continue to be a valuable asset of the military.”

However, if statements emanating from Islamabad are to be credited, Pakistan is now neutral on Afghanistan, accepts the results of the latest elections there, and is no longer obsessed with India.

Journalist Amir Mir had this to report in The News of April 17: “The Pakistani establishment has made it clear to the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network that the time has come for them to choose between the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan and the state of Pakistan if they want to stay friends with Islamabad.” As this assessment made it into print, the “peace” talks had entered a crucial stage, with the Taliban demanding the release of 800 of their comrades from Pakistani jails. Will Pakistan follow in the footsteps of Washington and declare the Haqqani network a terrorist organization?

Rumor has it Pakistan may be ready to ditch the Haqqani network.

It would be a bit naive to presume that the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network would choose to “stay friends” with Pakistan indefinitely. The Pakistani Taliban is a non-friend because it has killed a lot of good Pakistani soldiers and officers, including Maj. Gen. Sanaullah Niazi, the General Officer Commanding of Swat and Malakand division, in an ambush by their new chief, Mullah Fazlullah. Far from favoring a friend, the Afghan Taliban—or possibly the Afghan National Army as tit for tat—are providing Fazlullah safe haven in Afghanistan’s Kunar province. The fact is that Pakistan only has enemies in various gradations, hardly any friends, because its strategic vision doesn’t allow real friends to get near it without getting hurt.

If, as the world claims, Osama bin Laden was being kept in a safe house in Abbottabad, he was hardly a friend of Pakistan by any stretch of the imagination. If, as New York Times’ journalist Carlotta Gall alleges, Mullah Omar, too, is being kept in a safe house in Balochistan, he may likewise not be overcome by too much affection for his hosts.

In his 2010 report based on interviews with Afghan Taliban commanders, Matt Waldman of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government wrote: “Although many informed Afghans interviewed argue that the ISI is controlling the Taliban leadership, this is probably an exaggeration given the powerful internal force and dynamics of the [Taliban] movement. The Taliban leadership also has a record of resisting Pakistani pressure (for instance, the refusal of the Taliban regime to recognize the Durand Line or to hand over bin Laden to the U.S.).”

Deep Surrender

Pakistan’s Army may be in for a lot of surprises as it follows up on its pick-a-side warning to the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network. It has waited too long in the wings and mulled too long the security situation only in light of “external enemies” to note that Pakistan’s population has submitted more completely to indigenous terror networks than it could ever imagine.

In Islamabad, emblematically, the Al Qaeda-affiliated cleric Abdul Aziz of Lal Masjid has renamed the library of his girls’ seminary, Jamia Hafza, after bin Laden. And the lawyers of the capital city, as reported by The Guardian on April 30, have named a mosque in Faizabad after Mumtaz Qadri, the policeman who martyred Salmaan Taseer in 2011. Governor Taseer’s fault was that he had publicly supported reform of Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy laws, which target Pakistan’s poverty-stricken Christian community in the name of Islam although often the objective of the plaintiff is to dispossess the victims of their land through vigilante action. Tragically, Multan-based lawyer Rashid Rehman of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan was also assassinated, on May 7, for challenging these laws.

American diplomacy got activated after the rumored breakup of the “triangle of error” now that Islamabad has stumbled talking peace with the Taliban. James Dobbins, U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, speaking in Islamabad in April complained that Pakistan was not taking appropriate measures to curb terrorism in the country. He said madrassahs in Pakistan’s tribal belt and Balochistan were the cause of attacks inside Afghanistan and India.

Charge Sheet

One of the biggest problems facing Pakistan is the Haqqani network ensconced in North Waziristan. A roster of cross-border horrors inflicted by it on Afghanistan reads like this:

It was responsible for the storming of the Serena Hotel in Kabul during a visit by Norwegian officials in January 2008. It carried out a suicide attack on the Indian Embassy in July 2008 that killed two senior Indian officials and over 50 others. It similarly attacked a CIA base in Khost province in December 2009—this was the deadliest attack on the CIA in 25 years. It assaulted the U.S. Bagram Air Base in May 2010. It was behind a long siege of the U.S. Embassy in September 2011. It was also behind a complex and coordinated attack on U.S. Base Camp Salerno in Khost in 2012.

The U.S. has made public some of the documents it seized from bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad. These have revealed Mullah Omar as the central figure in the storm gathering simultaneously on Pakistan’s borders and in its major cities. The Haqqani network swears allegiance to Omar, so does Ayman al-Zawahiri, the current Al Qaeda leader.

If the decision to cleanse North Waziristan of terrorists who attack not only across the international border between Pakistan and Afghanistan but also inside Pakistan is finally taken, it will have the blessings of and possible assistance from threatened states around the globe.

In Pakistan’s immediate neighborhood, Iran, India, China, and Uzbekistan would be greatly relieved. India and Russia would be less inclined to gang up in Afghanistan if they are assured that Pakistan will help encircle and round up the Chechens and Uzbeks straddling the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. The Chinese, who have a big stake in mineral and hydrocarbon projects in Afghanistan, will return to the camps they have already fled. Saudi Arabia, fighting Al Qaeda and its Afghan-Chechen warriors in Yemen, will pay big money for the rollback of Pakistan’s “strategic depth” policy.

Strategic Pivot

The change, of course, if it hasn’t already been initiated, is necessitated by the contradictions of the policy of the past. If the Haqqani network has served to add enough spine to the Pakistani Taliban to enable it to spread its tentacles inside Pakistan, and if the Afghan Taliban led by Mullah Omar will not stand by Pakistan in its battle against the Pakistani Taliban, then this “triangle of error” must be dismantled. The Army fights external enemies, but what should it do if the external enemy (the Haqqanis, Uzbeks, Chechens, Uighurs) is drawn in and made to benefit from such “internal bounties” as safe havens and untold sums of money extracted from the national economy?

If the Pakistan Army has helped target-kill Taliban leaders Baitullah Mehsud and Hakimullah Mehsud through drone attacks and got rid, similarly, of that very dangerous Uzbek warlord Tahir Yuldashev, it has acted in the interest of its own survival and the survival of Pakistan. If a strategic shift in military thinking actually takes place now, it will be of great benefit even though it is a bit late in the day. The Army has already proved it can tackle the Taliban in Swat and the tribal agencies barring North Waziristan. Its efforts ran aground when the old GHQ under Gen. Ashfaq Kayani decided to take on India in the region and America and its powerful allies at the global level at the same time.

The Pakistani Taliban is a non-friend because it has killed a lot of good Pakistani soldiers and officers.

The obsessive “India strategy,” which harmed elected governments inside Pakistan more than India, has frequently been marveled at by analysts. Anatol Lieven in Pakistan: a Hard Country presents a sympathetic view of the Pakistan Army as it copes with terrorism. Nonetheless, his book critiques the Army’s obsessive behavior:

“A common definition of tragedy is that of a noble figure betrayed and destroyed by some inner flaw. The Pakistani military is in some ways an admirable institution, but it suffers from one tragic feature which has been with it from the beginning, which has defined its whole character and worldview, which has done terrible damage to Pakistan and which could in some circumstances destroy Pakistan and its armed forces altogether. This is the military’s obsession with India in general, and Kashmir in particular … Pakistani politicians share responsibility for encouraging ordinary Pakistanis to see jihad in Kashmir as legitimate.”

The nonstate jihadists of the Punjab who spearhead Pakistan’s India strategy and challenge elected governments with “long marches” every time they move to initiate free trade with India have become empowered over time by their status as semi-combatants within the civilian population. Their operational plans may be in sync with the “national agenda,” but their ideological interface with the “triangle of error” may be difficult to contend with at the present time. Since these nonstate actors are backed by a vast network of madrassahs, it would not be wise to challenge the illegal quantum of influence they have won over time.

Dangers of Heroic Isolation

The weakened state can easily busy itself in internal bickering and infighting, further competitively tightening the noose of international isolation by stakeholders accusing one another of following some “foreign agenda” or being collaborative with a “foreign hand.” Pakistan can’t take this for very long without dying of internal combustion. But it can regain strength by pulling down the castle of magnificent solitude it has constructed around the “national purpose.” Get the scared world outside to help you deal with the “triangle of error” in the mountains first, then build up the policing capacity of the state with outside assistance—not only with money, which can drain away through bureaucratic cracks, but also direct participation in induction and training—to confront the enemy within.

Iran stonewalled itself heroically against the world which it first interpreted as its enemy. The state grew as a deity in the eyes of Iranians drunk on nationalism. However, after nearly half a century of isolation, the system that heavily tilted toward the clergy has been forced by a languishing economy to relent and tell the world Iran was no longer interested in acts of derring-do. The Great Leader, Ali Khamenei, called the volte face “heroic flexibility.” Pakistan’s military strategy, too, must embrace this heroic flexibility and come out of its isolation to save the state from self-destructing.

Today, the moment may have arrived to look inside. The population is hardly divided in its extremism: opinion polls say the nation is united against India and the United States and prefers isolation to “slavery” and the accompanying shame of fighting “America’s war.” Also revealed, equally loudly, is the verdict of the national economy ambushed by the breakdown of law and order after years of globalization, making Pakistan’s trading partners and investors sensitive to the lack of security.

The Army has acted in the interest of its own survival and the survival of Pakistan.

The other introspection should focus on whether the Army is on the same page from within, that it is no longer at risk from officers who openly announce their revolutionary-Islamist credentials, as was done by former general Shahid Aziz in his 2013 nationally-acclaimed autobiography. Pat Buchanan, a onetime contender for U.S. president and a Republican, wrote this about the U.S. decision to ditch Pakistan post-Abbottabad: “If Pakistan’s intelligence services, Army and government all knew the exact location of bin Laden, we would know it. For we have people inside sympathetic to us, just as some are sympathetic to Al Qaeda. And if people inside discovered the exact location of bin Laden or Al Qaeda, they would leak it to us, if only because the money on the table for such intelligence is irresistible. That the Pakistani intelligence services are shot through with elements loyal to a Taliban they helped bring to power in Kabul, that there are Pakistani Army officers who believe they should be defending their country against India, not fighting America’s war in Waziristan, is also undeniable. But what does it avail us to insult these people who have cast their lot with us, many of whom will, with families and friends, pay a far more terrible price than we if we lose these wars.”

Poisoned Teat

Is Pakistan ideologically driven in its foreign policy, which manipulates and molds internal policy as well? Many “nationalist” analysts link the state ideology not only to Islam but also to India with which Pakistan must resolve the outstanding dispute of Kashmir before embarking on a “normal” economy-driven foreign policy.

The past decade has seen Pakistan gradually weaning itself from this ideological diet, even when it was ruled by a general after the overthrow of an elected “pro-India” government in 1999. Unfortunately, after the end of that military-led regime, the Pakistan Peoples Party-led government found it impossible to pursue an India policy frontloaded with an already agreed regime of free trade under the aegis of the World Trade Organization. The current government is facing the same challenge.

The solution is not more talks with terrorists, but the resolute use of force.

On May 6, speaking to a group of Pakistani ambassadors serving in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, Prime Minister Sharif articulated a frank deviation from ideology when he made it clear that his foreign policy is “driven by economic considerations.” Most Pakistanis, analyzing the foreign policies of other nations, accuse them of pursuing economic objectives. This is done without realizing that their accusations actually defy a norm and reveal their own intellectual misdirection.

If Pakistan’s strategy is “geopolitical” and predicated on not trading with India as a pressure to bend it on Kashmir, it won’t work. India’s economy is not dependent on Pakistan. Nor is India too hurt by Pakistan’s policy of not allowing it a trade corridor to Afghanistan and Central Asia. Chabahar port on the Iranian coast links Afghanistan to India with a broad highway. This development has given the lie to the much-bandied permanence of the “geopolitical” factor.

Trade or Terror

Since Pervez Musharraf left office in 2008, Pakistan has not been able to “open up” with India mainly because of the pressure applied by the nonstate actors of the not-so-covert proxy war. The political argument advanced against free trade with India will find no takers outside Pakistan.

Today, Pakistan trades 2,000 items with India through “official exchange” where no rules exist because of the abeyance of the bilateral free-trade treaty, which means India is free to use nontariff barriers to protect its market. For instance, it blocks Pakistan’s cement—which is three times cheaper than Indian cement—with arbitrary duties. Under free trade and its negative list, it may still trade 2,000 items with Pakistan, but will be bound by the conditions of the free-trade treaty. Trade and transit facilities will defuse tensions and remove application of hostile anti-economic measures in mutual conduct. Needless to say, new bilateral trade will be followed by adjustments on both sides—more on the side of Pakistan—and will settle down, like everywhere else in the world, to an unsteady equilibrium of mutual advantage constantly under review of trade talks.

Former World Bank economist Ijaz Nabi wrote recently in Newsweek: “WTO-consistent trade with India will require reorienting the supply chains to potentially more profitable Indian sources. This necessitates unfettered access to each other’s markets to identify opportunities and strike business deals. Disruptions caused by travel bans and suspension of trade routes would do little to encourage Pakistani firms to develop supply lines with India. The curtailment of economic transactions following the Mumbai attacks was costly and some businesses that were beginning to tap into Indian technical and management expertise were badly burnt. The potential gains from bilateral trade in terms of regional economic vibrancy, strengthening of economic growth in India and Pakistan, creating much needed productive jobs and peace and stability are too large to be disrupted for short-term noneconomic gains.”

The solution to the problem of terrorism driving investors away from Pakistan and causing its own capital to flee abroad is not more talks with terrorists, but a resolute use of force to recapture the writ of the state. This resolute force will have punch if not distracted by the “geopolitical” factor in foreign policy, dividing the Army between two fronts. Pakistan may be at a crossroads today; and it looks as if it is going to make the right policy choice. A reversal of the India-centric worldview will make Afghanistan safe for Pakistan; and the opening up of trade corridors will transform the landscape of terror into economic engagement through massive infrastructural development.

From our June 7-14, 2014, issue.

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Anwar Rizvi June 10, 2014 - 3:30 am

A great piece that on the one hand points to the flaws in the western aid policy towards Pakistan & on the other, the dilemmas Pakistan faces as a country if it is to somehow avoid the “failed state” label as already stated by some quarters. Last night’s attack on Karachi airport may be further evidence for that particular theory. A large cash injection from the Saudis may keep the country afloat for a while (below is my blog post on that subject) but the country will need much much more than the odd “gift” to survive, politically & economically.


anas June 10, 2014 - 4:07 pm

Considering the trio of errors as mentioned by the author, its a little more complicated than that, First is what is NATO leaving behind which in my opinion is an impending “civil war”. Secondly the tribal belt, Pakistani taliban, AL-qaeda and Haqqanis they are a product of cold war for which US is much more liable to be questioned than Pakistan. Third the so called “obsession” of military with India is a reaction to what strategies they formulate to maintain its status of regional bully.
Problem is not that simple to resolve i.e “open trade corridors”

hfaisalh June 10, 2014 - 9:13 pm

one solution! REVOLUTION!

Zobee June 11, 2014 - 1:45 am

“The Pakistani Taliban is a non-friend because it has killed a lot of good Pakistani soldiers and officers.”

what about 40k + civilians killed by TTP? Are they not of any importance in the eyes of the author? Otherwise, very well-written & researched article.

Javaid Bashir June 21, 2014 - 8:17 pm

Good Article. Prime Minister N.Sharif is to eager to open up trade with India that he is blinded to the reality . The reality is Pakistan can not allow its sovereignty, integrity and independence to become subservient to trade with the sworn enemy of our country. Unless India agrees to hold bilateral talks on all issues, no hold bar, we can not and should not award it with MFN status and relax tariff on trade.

Modi the extremist nationalist leader would be the game changer in the South Asian Region. A lot will depend on him how he deals with the neighboring Countries. He wants to make India a super power in the region. It is important to understand the mind set of Modi and his government. Considering his history of anti Muslim rhetoric and riots in Gujarat under his rule as the Chief minister of that State. We should not forget these things , otherwise we will be at a loss.

Our foreign policy hass been the realm of the establishment not the civil governments. Our policy has remained India specific due to the history of wars between the two nations. That has to be changed and it should be focused on our political and economic needs. A drastic shift has to be made to counter Indian hegemony designs..


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