History, Profiles, Reviews, Occasional Meanderings
Difficult and delicate: a few thoughts on the North Waziristan operation
June 16, 2014Posted by on
I haven’t posted here awhile, mainly because of work and study commitments. Given the Pakistan army’s attack yesterday on its Federally Administrated Tribal Areas, however, I thought I’d jot down a few thoughts. I don’t normally write off-the-cuff posts like this without citation or arrangement, but this seems important and it IS a blog
1) This appears to have been basically inevitable at one level. Not only did the TTP launch a rather horrendous assault on Karachi’s airport last week, but the militants that claimed responsibility were Uzbek and Central Asian Turks who have been earmarked as a major threat by Pakistan’s most powerful and reliable partner, China. Given this, it was inevitable that these militants–a collection of Central Asian Islamist groups, most notoriously the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan under Usman Ghazi, who have sheltered in Pakistan for the past decade or so–would be attacked. The unwelcome attention also drew attention from other, more Pakistan-friendly Islamist commanders in North Waziristan, Gul Bahadur and Sirajuddin Haqqani, who have not only cooperated closely with the Pakistan army and intelligence but also fear unwelcome attention that both draws from their anti-US jihad in Afghanistan and their autonomy.
2) It is also fairly clear, or should be, that the eradication of the TTP is not, as the group and its supporters have declared, an American war but very much a Pakistani concern. Though the arrival of the TTP in 2007 was boosted by American-pushed military attacks in a sensitive tribal region, since then the group itself has only ever pursued its stated goal of jihad rhetorically; though its leaders repeatedly claim to be fighting against the occupation of Afghanistan, the group itself has exclusively attacked mostly fellow Muslim Pakistanis. Not only did the Afghan Taliban and even Al-Qaeda distance themselves from the TTP’s strategy and tactics respectively, but the Mehsud tribesmen under Khalid Sajna–among the group’s most accomplished commanders–also split away. Though Sajna’s differences with the hardline TTP leader Fazlullah Hayat and his Mehsud lieutenant Sheharyar Shahbaz seem to rise more from personal ambition than necessarily ideology, the TTP’s core local support has stemmed from the Mehsuds. There is also increasing evidence, echoed by Sajna’s supporter Raees Tariq (no matter how cynically, considering his own long history with the TTP), that Fazlullah is heavily funded by the Afghan intelligence agency, which contrasts sharply with the TTP’s rhetoric about liberating Afghanistn.
3) That said, it is absolutely ridiculous to pretend, as some “more loyal than the army chief” keyboard soldiers have done, that a war between the Pakistan army and a Pakistan-based group is black-and-white. As ludicrous it is to pretend that eradicating the TTP is an American concern, not a Pakistani one, it is equally ridiculous to assert that those leaders, such as Tehreek-e-Insaf head Imran Khan and Jamaat-e-Islami emir Sirajul-Haq, are somehow sympathetic to the TTP because they have concerns about the fallout of a difficult operation. Too many self-proclaimed army loyalists are acting like a multifaceted, complex and difficult conflict is simply black-and-white, as that JI, PTI and others who raise valid concerns are traitors. Dissent is healthy, particularly in a conflict where every Pakistani, including the army, should want to limit unnecessary casualties to the bare minimum.
There is also a world of difference between registering valid concerns and caveats over the possible fallout of a tricky operation, as JI and PTI have done–and “opposing the army”–which is ironically what some of the loudest cheerleaders, such as pseudoliberals Nadeem Paracha, Umar Cheema, Omar Quraishi, and Abdul-Majeed Abid, have spent years and built careers doing. It’s odd to see these pseudoliberals settle into a marriage of convenience with pro-army analysts and even with ultra-conservative Islamists like Lashkar-e-Taiba head Muhammad Saeed; hopefully they can keep it up when the army turns against Balochistan’s separatists, but I wouldn’t hold my breath.
4) This operation will be pointless, or at least left unfinished, as long as the NATO supply routes from Karachi remains intact. This has been the lifeline of NATO’s occupation of Afghanistan, among whose top beneficiaries is the Afghan secret service to which the TTP and other anti-Pakistan groups have been linked. The main reason that Fazlullah Hayat retains so much influence as a TTP hardliner is his enormous supply of cash and the strategic depth he can garner from the Afghan secret service. It’s pointless to argue for the elimination of the TTP and yet keep the occupation of Afghanistan–whose people deserve far better than a superficial, corrupt and brutal puppet regime–open; this is, both in terms of their propagation and resources, the TTP’s main lifeline. Again, I wouldn’t hold my breath.
5) Broadly speaking–regardless of whether one agrees with their strategy–the Pakistan army command has been impressively willing to put their “skin in the game” in recent times. It’s been well-circulated over the past couple of days that Khalid Rabbani, Peshawar corps commander, has also sent his son to the front. I have not yet seen confirmation of this, but it wouldn’t be unusual. The Karachi airport attack was personally countered by corps commander Sajjad Ghani, in a risky but daring performance; other commanders such as Haroon Aslam and Tariq Khan have personally led their troops in dozens of engagements. Masood Aslam, formerly Peshawar corps commander, lost his only son Hashim, also a soldier, in a 2009 Rawalpindi masjid attack, which also killed the high-ranked commander Bilal Omer, whom witnesses described as personally tackling the suicide bomber. Other commanders assassinated or slain in combat during the past decade include Sanaullah Niazi, Mushtaq Baig, Faisal Alvi, Haroon-ul-Islam, Anwarul-Haq Ramday, Mujahid Mirani, Safwat Ghayur, Usman Ali, and Waseem Aamer; the list is by no means exhaustive. Just as it is possible to disagree with JI and PTI without calling them “TTP sympathizers”, it is also possible to recognize without agreeing to their plans that the Pakistan army are not, as the TTP claim, “Western sellouts”, and have often displayed extraordinary leadership in this conflict.
6) The prominent Rawalpindi politician Sheikh Rasheed has called this a miniature military rule, with which I agree. Army head Raheel Sharif had been earmarked as a client of the prime minister Nawaz Sharif, but if anything it appears that Raheel wears the Sharif pants. As often happens in tense times and with a blatantly incompetent regime, the army’s popularity has also increased in recent months, but its own interests should prevent it from trying to seize power. As Ashfaq Kayani’s tenure showed, a quietly influential army behind the scenes is far better than a Pervez Musharraf-style military regime, which may yield short-term benefits but in the long run hurts both civic politics and military cohesion.
7) According to the army spokesperson Asim Bajwa–hardly a neutral source, of course–the Pakistan army and local government has done its best to minimize innocent casualties and to support displaced refugees. The very legitimate humanitarian concerns aside, this is to be fervently hoped for anyway, because the last thing Pakistan needs is the alienation of its frontier population, most of whom have been upstanding citizens but who would naturally resent a heavy-handed assault.
8) Interestingly, NATO’s client regime in Afghanistan has tried to portray itself as the saviour of the frontier people here; the Afghan journalist Bilal Sarwary, largely sympathetic to the occupation, posted a picture on social media of what he claimed were Pakistani refugees in Khost, which Pakistani analyst Arif Rafiq subsequently showed was a 2011 picture in northern Pakistan. It should be noted–and commended–that the Khost provincial governor, Abdul-Jabbar Fahimi, has accepted several hundreds of refugees, which underscores the historical bond between Afghans and Pakistanis. But it is interesting that an occupation-sympathetic journalist would feel the need to dig up fabricated photographs to prove this point; as NATO finally withdraws from Afghanistan, it appears that the pro-occupation press is whirring into overdrive.