Pakistan’s Border War Grows Murkier

February 11, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

By Adnan R. Khan, AOL News

PESHAWAR, Pakistan (Feb. 7) — Last week’s suicide attack in Pakistan’s volatile Lower Dir region, the site of Pakistani military operations against the Pakistani Taliban, has added fuel to an already raging wildfire of conspiracy theories in the country. The attack killed not only its presumed American targets but also two schoolgirls, and injured more than 100 others. But what caused the Pakistani government special discomfort was the spotlight it shone on the American military presence here.

For Pakistanis, that presence is only part of a larger and increasingly murky game being played out in the war-torn Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP) and the adjoining Tribal Areas. Even as operations against militants continue, rumors of meetings between militants and the Pakistani army have clouded perceptions of the government’s strategy to confront Pakistan’s growing insurgency.

Anti-American sentiment has surged in recent days with the conviction in New York of Pakistani neuroscientist Aafia Siddiqui on terrorism charges, a judgment the Pakistani government and the Taliban alike have condemned as proof of U.S. prejudice against Muslims.

If that weren’t enough, American intelligence sources claimed this week that a drone attack last month killed Hakimullah Mehsud, a key Pakistani Taliban leader. Officials in Pakistan, where drone attacks are another daily unwanted reminder of Islamabad’s highly unpopular cooperation with U.S., have pointedly not confirmed the death.

That disconnect highlights what has become a deadly public relations exercise, pitting a nervous U.S. administration keen to win over Pakistani public opinion against a Pakistan army that is trying both to maintain its links with shady militant groups it considers useful and at the same time appease U.S. demands that it crack down on them.

For years, Pakistan has refused to let go of its links to the militants while Washington has turned a blind eye to Pakistan’s duplicity, fearful of losing a crucial ally in its war on Islamic extremism. The net result has been confusion and chaos. Even beneath that U.S.-Pakistani tension, the war in NWFP, on the Afghanistan border, is treacherous and bewildering even to those in its midst.

“No one knows what exactly is going on,” says Faheem Urrahman, the 42-year-old mayor of Bazi Khel, a dusty town just south of Peshawar, capital of NWFP, and bordering the Khyber tribal agency. “I don’t know who exactly I’m supposed to be fighting anymore.”

Urrahman has seen first-hand how the game is played and how men like him can turn suddenly from favored ally to expendable pawn. A few short months ago, he was the darling of the Pakistani military, which lavished him with praise for raising a small army to take on Taliban-linked militants in his war-torn region of Khyber. Today, Urrahman fears for his life, and he blames not just the Taliban, but also the Pakistani Army.

A few miles from his heavily guarded compound, his sworn enemies, the Lashkar-i-Islam (LiI), an Islamist group now considered part of the Pakistani Taliban, are re-grouping. A military operation against them that began in August last year has done little to weaken their presence. The leader, Mangal Bagh, one of the most wanted men in Pakistan, remains at large, yet that operation appears to be winding down.

“I don’t understand it,” Urrahman says. “If the Pakistani army made a sincere effort to get rid of these guys, it could be over in a month.”

The abortive operation in Khyber suggests to him and others that Pakistan’s war against Islamic militancy is sometimes more a public relations exercise than a legitimate push to cleanse the country of its fundamentalist threat.

According to one senior agent with Pakistani Inter-services Intelligence, or ISI, Bagh, an illiterate former bus conductor, is only the latest in a long line of Pakistani militants groomed by ISI agents. As Taliban influence rises throughout Pakistan’s tribal areas, the ISI has struggled to maintain its influence over an ever more complex array of militant groups formed in the wake of the war in Afghanistan. “Mangal Bagh was supposed to be our man in Khyber,” says the ISI source. “But it hasn’t quite worked out that way. “

That is putting it mildly. Since Bagh took control in Khyber, Taliban influence there has skyrocketed, with violence spilling over into Peshawar itself. In August last year, the Pakistani army began a major operation, listing Bagh as one of Pakistan’s most-wanted militants and promising to rid Khyber Agency of the LiI. Months earlier, Faheem had set up his own anti-Bagh militia, after attacks against his men in Bazi Khel forced his hand. “We had the support of the military then,” he says. “I’d like to think we still have the support of the military now.”

But that appears less and less likely. The Pakistani military recently announced a moratorium on military operations and has strongly backed an initiative by Afghan President Hamid Karzai seeking reconciliation with low- to mid-level Taliban commanders. Al Jazeera recently reported that meetings were under way between the United Nations and the Quetta Council, the Afghan Taliban’s central authority, including Mullah Omar, which has been operating out of the Pakistani city Quetta bordering Afghanistan’s restive Kandahar province.

“This Khyber operation has been a game,” says one officer of Pakistan’s Frontier Corps. “I can tell you from what I saw: there is no operation. Not in Khyber and not in other places the military claims it is taking on the Taliban.”

In fact, the officer says the army is still on speaking terms with Bagh, even as it claims publicly to be hunting him down.

“I saw [Bagh] meet with senior generals at Bala Hisar in the middle of December,” he says, referring to the British-era fort in Peshawar’s old city . “I don’t know what the meeting was about but I saw him come in with a convoy of military officers.”

The Pakistani military could not be reached for comment, but a former senior officer with Inter-services Public Relations, the army’s media wing, told AOL News that no one there would “ever confirm such a meeting took place.”

So where does that leave Urrahman , so recently hailed as an anti-Taliban patriot? Nervously glancing around his compound, he admits he is uneasy. Two attempts on his life in recent months have left him on edge. He never stays at the same place for more than one night. On November 8 last year, Haji Abdul Malik, another anti-Taliban militia commander operating just a few miles south, was assassinated by a suicide bomber. Urrahman senses he might be next.

“Of course I have reservations,” he says, blaming the government for not doing enough to protect him. “How can I trust the authorities after all that has happened? They haven’t arrested a single person linked to the attacks on me, even though they know who was behind them.”

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US vs. Taliban in Afghanistan

November 12, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

Inter Press Service, News Analysis, Muhammad Idrees Ahmad

2009-11-01T035748Z_200158948_GM1E5B10X8201_RTRMADP_3_AFGHANISTAN PESHAWAR, Pakistan, Oct 30 (IPS) – To the west of Peshawar on the Jamrud Road that leads to the historic Khyber Pass sits the Karkhano Market, a series of shopping plazas whose usual offering of contraband is now supplemented by standard issue U.S. military equipment, including combat fatigues, night vision goggles, body armour and army knives.

Beyond the market is a checkpoint, which separates the city from the semi-autonomous tribal region of Khyber. In the past, if one lingered near the barrier long enough, one was usually approached by someone from the far side selling hashish, alcohol, guns, or even rocket-propelled grenade launchers. These days such salesman could also be selling U.S. semi-automatics, sniper rifles and hand guns. Those who buy do it less for their quality—the AK-47 still remains the weapon of choice here—than as mementos of a dying Empire.

The realisation may be dawning slowly on some U.S. allies, but here everyone is convinced that Western forces have lost the war. However, at a time when in Afghanistan the efficacy of force as a counterinsurgency tool is being increasingly questioned, there is a newfound affinity for it in Pakistan.

A survey conducted by the International Republican Institute (IRI) in July 2009, which excluded the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and parts of the North West Frontier Province (NWFP)—the regions directly affected by war—found 69 percent of respondents supporting the military operation in Swat.

A different survey undertaken by the U.S. polling firm Gallup around the same time, which covered all of Pakistan, found only 41 percent supporting the operation. The Gallup poll also found a higher number—43 percent—favouring political resolution through dialogue.

The two polls also offer a useful perspective on how Pakistanis perceive the terrorist threat. If the country is unanimous on the need to confront militancy, it is equally undivided in its aversion for the U.S. Yet, both threats are not seen as equal: the Gallup survey found 59 percent of Pakistanis considering the U.S. as the bigger threat when compared to 11 percent for the Taliban; and, according to the IRI poll, fewer saw the Taliban (13 percent) as the biggest challenge compared to the spiralling inflation which is wrecking the economy (40 percent).

In 2001, when the United States launched its ‘war on terror’, many among Pakistan’s political elite and intelligentsia supported it, miscalculating the public mood, which was overwhelmingly hostile. This led to the protest vote which brought to power the religious alliance Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) in two of the frontier provinces. The MMA had been alone in openly opposing U.S. intervention.

However, as Afghanistan fell, things went quiet and passions subsided. Pervez Musharraf, the military dictator, was able to present his decision to participate in the “war on terror” as a difficult but unavoidable choice. Internationally, his isolation ended, and as a reward the various sanctions imposed on Pakistan after the nuclear tests of 1998 were lifted.

The economy grew, so did Musharraf’s popularity. When under intense U.S. pressure in 2004 he sent the Pakistani military into the restive FATA region, people barely noticed. He managed to retain his support despite reports of atrocities, which, according to Human Rights Watch, included indiscriminate use of force, home demolitions, extrajudicial killings, torture and disappearances. Indeed, if he was blamed at all, it was for not going far enough.

Things changed when on Musharraf’s orders, soldiers stormed a mosque in Islamabad held by Taliban sympathizers in August 2007, which resulted in the deaths of many seminarians. The Taliban retaliated by taking the war to the mainland and terrorist attacks hit several major cities.

Musharraf was blamed, and with an emerging challenge from the civil society in the form of a lawyers’ movement and an insurgent media, his popularity went into terminal decline. Meanwhile, in the Malakand region, Swat and Dir emerged as new flashpoints. The threat from Taliban militants could no longer be ignored, but opinions differed as to how best to confront it. The majority supported a negotiated settlement.

The turning point came in May, when, after a peace deal between the government and militants had broken down, the military embarked on a major offensive in Malakand. Though the truce had temporarily brought calm to the region, both sides had failed to live up to their commitments.

Yet, in the aftermath the Taliban alone were blamed, and in the media a consensus developed against any further negotiations with the militants. The operation was hailed as a success despite the loss of countless lives and the displacement of up to three million people.

However, in the frontier itself, analysts remained less sanguine. Rahimullah Yusufzai, deemed the most knowledgeable commentator on frontier politics, considered it an “avoidable” war. Another leading analyst, Rustam Shah Mohmand, wondered if it was not a war against the Pakhtuns, the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan and the NWFP, since no similar actions were considered in other lawless regions.

Roedad Khan, a former federal secretary, described it as an “unnecessary war” which was “easy to prevent … difficult to justify and harder to win”. In the political mainstream all major parties felt obliged to support the war for fear of being labelled unpatriotic. The opposition came mainly from religious parties, and from cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (Movement for Justice).

Opinions were reinforced in favour of a military solution when militants launched a wave of terrorist attacks in anticipation of the Pakistani army’s new operation in FATA.

While the effects of the terrorist atrocities were there for all to see, the consequences of months of aerial bombing and artillery shelling that preceded the operation were less known.

A third of the total population of South Waziristan—site of the government’s newly launched anti-Taliban offensive—has been displaced, and it has received little relief. When an Associated Press crew met the refugees, they expressed their anger at the government by chanting “Long live the Taliban”.

Instead of winning hearts and minds, the Pakistani government is delivering them to the enemy.

Despite the best efforts of sections of the elite to take ownership of the war, the view persists that Pakistan is fighting an American war. That the military operation in South Waziristan follows an inducement of 1.5 billion U.S. dollars from the U.S. government, and is supported by U.S. drone surveillance, does little to disabuse skeptics of their notions.

Following the bombing of the International Islamic University in Islamabad last week, an Al Jazeera correspondent—a Scot—was accosted by an angry student who, mistaking him for an American, held him responsible for the attack.

Pakistanis are acutely aware that before 2002 there was no terrorist threat, and they remain equally convinced that the threat will vanish once U.S. forces withdraw from the region. But before that happens, some fear, Pakistan will have compromised its long-term stability.

Muhammad Idrees Ahmad (m.idrees@gmail.com) is the co-founder of Pulsemedia.org.

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Fresh Wave of Militancy in Aftermath of Bloody Red Mosque Operation

July 19, 2007 by · Leave a Comment 

By Ashraf Ali, Special to Muslim Media News Service

Peshawar, Pakistan–The ‘operation silence’ at last broke the silence when 102 persons including Red Mosque deputy cleric Abdul Rashid Ghazi, seventy two seminarians and ten soldiers were killed and over 130 injured as security forces stormed the Red Mosque-Jamia Hafsa complex–on July 10.

The operation, although it put an end to a six-month long stand off between the Red Mosque clerics and the government authorities, has given birth to many questions.

The foremost question asked is: why did President Musharraf chose this time for launching an operation against the mosque, and secondly, how come the heavy piles of arms and ammunition could make its way to the mosque and Jamia Hafsa in the capital right under the nose of intelligence agencies? The political observers believe that the launch of the operation at this times was aimed at diverting people’s attention from the on-going judicial crises which started with the suspension of the Chief Justice of Pakistan Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, the governments’ failure in delivering to the flood-hit areas where the torrential rains during the current monsoon played havoc with thousands of people in parts of the country; and finally sabotaging the efforts made for making the All Parties Conference a success, which was due in a couple of days after the operation was launched.

According to a government spokesman, the assault was necessary to free hundreds of female hostages and young seminarians, but a week after the attack the despondent parents are still seeking their loved ones.

In an officially arranged visit to the Red Mosque and Jamia Hafsa, the security forces showed the media persons a huge cache of arms and ammunitions, which according to the Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR) was recovered from the mosque and the madrasa Hafsa. This included rockets, landmines, suicide bombing belts, light machine guns (LMGs), Klashnikovs, rocket-propelled grenades, automatic guns, pistols, revolvers, night vision equipment, and over 50,000 live bullets of different calibers. Three crates of petrol bombs prepared from green soft drink bottles, gas masks, recoilless rifles, dozens of AK 47s, two way radios, large plastic buckets held tennis-ball size homemade bombs and knives were also put on display for the visiting media persons. While briefing the media persons, Director General ISPR, Major General Waheed Arshad said “we also recovered the head of a suicide bomber and his body parts.”

If the government is true in its claim, then the question posed is how come the huge dumps of arms and ammunitions could make its way to the Red Mosque and Jamia Hafsa and how it got radicalized itself within the breathing distance of the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) headquarters in the capital, Islamabad.

And secondly, why did the government delay any action against the Red Mosque when it knew that the mosque’s administration have been challenging the writ of the government for the last six months when the Ghazi brothers started brandishing un-authorized weapons in public.

The Red Mosque administration became radicalized during the Afghan jihad against the USSR. Maulvi Abdullah, the father of the deceased Maulvi Abdul Rashid Ghazi, befriended Afghan jihadists including Abdul Rab Rasool Sayyaf and Jalaluddin Haqqani during the early nineties. Later, Abdullah developed friendly links with the Taliban when they emerged as victors of Kabul in 1996. General Zia ul Haq, the then President of Pakistan was more pivotal in radicalizing Pakistan, with the help of US funds and weapons. He encouraged Abdullah’s fraternizing with Afghan worriors. As a result of state encouragement, Maulvi Abdullah and the Red Mosque enterprise grew; Abdullah usurped state land in the prime E-7 sector of Islamabad to establish yet another seminary, Jamia-e-Fareedia and because of his links to the high ups in the establishment, the authorities did not prevent him from using state land.

The former Chairman of the Department of Political Science, University of Peshawar and political analyst, Professor Iqbal Tajik, said, “both the Ghazi brothers of the Red Mosque were pampered by the successive military regimes which lends credence to the widespread nexus between the mullahs and Army.” “How could they build up such a military compound right at the heart of the capital without the knowledge of the army and intelligence agencies?” asked Professor Tajik.

Intelligence agencies thought that by funding and creating radical groups they would be able to switch them off when a situation demanded. But it was a wrong assumption. The government did not take into account that once a radical organization is allowed to sprout and attains a certain level, it becomes autonomous in its management and policies. It is then only a matter of time before such an organization graduates first to a regional and then into an international terrorist network. The Red Mosque was no exception.

By 2001, it began to criticize US policies openly. In 2003, the Red Mosque organized violent protests against the murder of another leader of a jihadist outfit, Azam Tariq of a banned religious party, Sepah-e-Sahaba. Seminary students ransacked petrol stations, cinemas, restaurants and other property.

In 2004, Osama Bin Laden’s driver was arrested from the Red Mosque compound. But despite all this the government was unperturbed at the waywardness of its people. A legal expert cum political activist and former member of the national assembly, Abdul Latif Afridi, explained the logic behind the government’s silence on the issue in question, in these words: “The only explanation that comes to mind for this indifference is that government used periodic Red Mosque eruptions as justification for retaining the role of the military in Pakistani politics.”

The political pundits are of the view that at this juncture President Musharraf, exploiting the situation, wanted to show the American administration that the threat of religious extremism still exists in Pakistan and that he (General Musharraf–a man in the uniform) could be the best option for America to crush these extremist forces with full might.”

But Musharraf and his government had to pay a huge price. Immediately after the operation, a series of retaliatory attacks rocked various parts of the country, claiming hundreds of people including youths of the Pak-Army, police, levies and Frontier Constabulary (FC). During the weekend alone, seventy-one people have lost their lives and scores of others have been wounded as a result of suicide attacks in the North West Frontier Province of the country.

In North Waziristan, a troubled area in the tribal belt, the militants, while unilaterally scrapping their 10-month-old peace accord with the government, have threatened guerilla style attacks against the security forces in the area. Abdullah Farhad, a spokesman for the Taliban in the restive tribal areas while talking to The Muslim Observer on telephone from an undisclosed area, said that “their Amir (leader) has announced that the agreement with the government which reached on September 5thl, last year, stands terminated.”

He further maintained that the Amir had ordered the Taliban to start guerilla attacks against the security forces re-deployed in the area following attacks on the security forces. Leaflets announcing the scrapping of the accord were distributed in Miranshah, headquarters of North Waziristan, prompting scores of families to flee the troubled area. He later claimed responsibility for the suicide bombing on Sunday that killed 26 including 15 policemen and 11 candidates who had gathered for police recruitment, and injured more than 50 in police lines in Dera Ismail Khan, a southern district of North West Frontier Province.

Following a bloody suicide attack in the Swat valley which killed 13 persons including 11 soldiers, the government has already sent reinforcements to the troubled area where a local cleric, Maulana Fazlullah, has challenged the authority of the government. Maulana Fazlullah who has been running an illegal FM radio station is said to have the active support of thousands of armed men at his back in an area which is the stronghold of a banned religious outfit, Tahreek-e-Nifaz-e-Sharia-e-Muhammadi (TNSM)- a movement for the implementation of the Islamic Shari’ah. TNSM was founded by Maulana Sufi Muhammad in 1992 and since then the movement has been struggling for the implementation of a Taliban-style government in the Malakand region of the Swat Valley. After 9/11, Sufi Muhammad took more than ten thousand people to Afghanistan to fight alongside the Taliban against US-led forces there. In 2002, President Musharraf banned TNSM along with some other religious outfits on charges of their being involved in terrorism-related activities.

It is clear that there will be more retaliatory killings to avenge the deaths of civilians in the Red Mosque. A solution to the problem of jihadism lies in a twin track approach, based on full political empowerment by the return of undiluted democracy and a clear official committement not to use jihadi proxies for political or military objectives–their nexus with the intelligence services can only turn Pakistan into a crippled state. Its is too high a price to be paid.

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