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Taliban in tribal Pakistan: down but not out? August 26, 2009

Posted by southasiamasala in : Kirpalani, Kunal P, Pakistan , trackback

Kunal P. Kirpalani

Latest BBC reports confirm the death of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) leader Baitullah Mehsood.  Reports of his death have ignited an intense debate: is the TTP  ‘on the run’ from Pakistani government forces or is it biding its time and awaiting an opportunistic moment to return, just as it did in Afghanistan?

Prior to the hardening of the resolve of the Pakistani government, there were widespread fears of ‘talibanisation’ generated by the takeover of the strategically valued Swat and Buner districts in Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP). By March of this year, the Taliban were only about 150 km away from Islamabad. They were ramping up their annexation of tribal districts. It was taken as an indicator of a ‘doomsday’ scenario in which a moderate Muslim country would be overrun by Taliban militants intent on creating a regime similar to that of the repressive and backward Taliban-administered Afghanistan of the 1990s.

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However, a concoction of international pressure (especially from the United States) and internal outcry from political, military and public circles motivated Zadari’s government to implement counter-terrorism measures against the ‘talibanisation’ plaguing tribal areas of FATA. Until recently, Islamabad neglected the domestic socio-political and economic affairs of the frontier areas. This neglect was in part a legacy of the policies of the British Raj. Successive Pakistani regimes, either military or civilian, intentionally continued the policy, fearing reprisals from the ethnically dominant and feared Pashtun tribes.

Unfortunately, such neglect has contributed to the rise of Islamist militancy in these lawless regions. They are experiencing the cultivation of extreme Deobandi-style madrassas, or Islamic religious schools, that contain thousands of male pupils. The primarily Pashtun students are often indoctrinated in Islamic fundamentalism and are readily available for recruitment by Islamist terrorist organizations. This problem is caused by inadequate governance from Islamabad; compounded by the spill-over of the Afghan-Soviet conflict and General Zia’s Islamicisation policies in the 1980s; and the overthrow of the Afghan-Taliban regime in 2001, which led to thousands of Taliban militants infiltrating Tribal Pakistan.

The Madrassa problem still continues, but at least it is now under scrutiny from Islamabad and the International Community. Already, Pakistan’s armed forces have flushed out most Taliban cadres from Swat and Buner, whilst conducting full-scale assaults in other districts of NWFP and FATA. TTP militants seem to be fleeing from the majority of Tribal districts and agencies. The TTP presence is currently confined mostly in South Wazirstan. TTP members are now fighting against government forces in a no-man’s-land battlefield between South Wazirstan and Tank, an agency in NWFP.

There has been talk that a final government push against the militants in South Wazirstan is imminent. Usually in FATA the government uses paramilitary forces to oppose the militants.  However, on this occasion, the final push will likely consist of a mixture of ground-assault foot soldiers, artillery, tanks and air support from helicopter gunships and fighter jets.

Despite the talk of an imminent assault, Pakistani Lieutenant General Nadeem Ahmed states that an attack will not occur for several more months. According to him, government forces need to be revitalised after recent intensive fighting before they can initiate an effective attack.

Yet this does not mean that there is no drive from Islamabad to eradicate the TTP.  The Zadari government is apparently determined to end this insurgency once and for all. It recognises that the TTP can potentially overthrow it and fragment the country.

But there is also the possibility that once FATA has been cleared of the TTP, the government will re-focus on India, especially on the Kashmir dispute. India has always been the focal point of Pakistani strategic thinking, even during the recent ‘talibanisation’ phase. In these circumstances, concern has been expressed that at least some of the government forces would withdraw from FATA, perhaps leading to a recrudescence of the TTP.  However, this is unlikely to happen, as troops need be present in FATA and NWFP in order to prevent jihadist incursions from Afghanistan, where there is still a widespread Taliban insurgency.

Even if a significant military presence were retained in FATA, there is a good chance that that the TTP could make a comeback. It may appear to be on the ‘run’.  But Baitullah Mehsood can be quickly replaced:  already there is talk that Hakimullah Mehsood has replaced him. It is likely that the TTP could be strategically withdrawing  from formerly controlled regions. Its leaders could be biding their time in South Wazirstan before conducting a widespread counterattack against government forces. Even if this were not the case, its cadres can still bomb schools and other infrastructure throughout NWFP in a classic terrorism campaign, just as occurred in Afghanistan in the years following the US invasion. Meanwhile, it is estimated that 30 to 35 thousand combatants are still available to wreak havoc on the 25.5 million residents in tribal Pakistan.

Comments

1. Nishadh - August 26, 2009

Great piece Kunal! Looking forward to reading more stuff from you