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The alarming rise of Pakistani Taliban

April 25, 2009 03:15 IST

Like the neo-Taliban of Afghanistan, the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) has evolved in less than a year from a bunch of suicide bombers to a conventional army capable of set-piece, stand and fight battles with the Pakistani Army and para-military forces.

This conversion has been facilitated by the recruitment of a large number of retired Pashtun ex-servicemen living in the Pashtun tribal belt in the Federally-Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and in the Malakand Division of the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP). The Swat Valley and the Buner District, less than a hundred km from Islamabad, which was occupied by the TTP earlier this week without any resistance from the local security forces, form part of the Malakand Division.

The agreement signed earlier this year by the coalition Government in the NWFP headed by the Awami National Party (ANP) with Sufi Mohammad of the Tehrik-e-Nifaz-a-Shariat-e-Mohammadi (TNSM), which is a constituent unit of the TTP, for the introduction of Sharia courts covers the entire Division, consisting of seven districts and not just Swat. Now that the agreement, despite strong criticism from abroad, has been got approved by Prime Minister Yousef Raza Gilani  by the National Assembly and signed by President Asif Ali Zardari, the TNSM has lost no time in expanding its control to areas of the Malakand Division outside Swat. The occupation of the Buner district is the beginning. The occupation of the other districts will follow.

What should be of great concern to both India and the US is that the TTP, which was seen till recently as merely a collection of young suicide bombers with limited capability for territorial control and dominance through conventional forces, has started demonstrating that it has evolved into a conventional army, which can fight, occupy and administer territory. Thus, the TTP has evolved into a mirror image of the Neo Taliban. It shares with the Neo Taliban its objective of fighting for the defeat of the US-led NATO forces in Afghanistan. At the same time, it has its own independent agenda of expanding its territorial and ideological dominance to other areas of the Pashtun belt in the NWFP initially  and then to non-Pashtun areas. The Neo Taliban does not approve of this independent agenda, but does not oppose it actively.

The Pakistan Army headed by Gen. Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, its Chief of the Army Staff (COAS), has shown neither the will nor the inclination to counter the advance of the TTP and then roll it back. It is not Kayani's worries about what could happen on the Indian border, which have come in the way of a vigorous response to the TTP's military advance. It is his worries over the continuing loyalty of the Pashtun soldiers, who constitute about 20 per cent of the Army, and of the Frontier Corps and the Frontier Constabulary, which are responsible for his anxiety and keenness to make peace with the TTP. The Frontier Corps and the Frontier Constabulary consist predominantly of Pashtun soldiers recruited in the FATA and the NWFP, officered by deputationists from the Army. These units have been showing less and less inclination to fight the TTP. They have been either avoiding a confrontation with the TNSM and the TTP or in some cases just deserting and surrendering to the TTP units.

 According to reliable sources in the Pakistan People's Party (PPP), it is pressure from an alarmed Kayani to reach an accommodation with the TNSM and the TTP, which set in motion  the negotiations with Sufi Mohammad and the developments that have followed. The Army and the para-military forces have already conceded territorial control to the TTP in the FATA and in the Malakand Division of the NWFP. By re-locating his forces and by reducing the Army's presence in these areas already under the domination of the TNSM and the TTP, Kayani is reportedly hoping to prevent an ingress of the Pakistani Taliban into other parts of the NWFP and beyond.

The objectives of the TTP are presently limited to ideological unity of all Muslims in Pakistan based on the Sharia and the ethnic unity of all the Pashtuns in the Af-Pak region to wage a relentless jihad against the US-led NATO forces till they vacate Afghanistan. It has the motivation and intention to extend its ideological influence to non-Pashtun areas too, but is not yet in a position to establish territorial dominance in those areas. The Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) of Altaf Hussain apprehends that the TTP wants to set up a strong presence in Karachi, which has the largest Pashtun community in Pakistan after Peshawar.

Confronted with the worsening  ground situation in the NWFP and with the danger of a possible collapse of the strategy of President Barack Obama even before it was taken up for implementation, the US is acting like a cat on a hot tin roof. There have been understandable cries of alarm not only from Hillary Clinton, the Secretary of State, and Robert Gates, the Defence Secretary, but also from White House spokesmen. Cries of alarm  and the preparation of yet another national intelligence estimate on Pakistan alone will not help. What is urgently required is a national intelligence estimate on US policy-making towards Pakistan, which has been leading it from one critical situation to another.

A study of the course of US policy-making would show how those Pakistani leaders who are toasted one day as frontline allies against extremism and terrorism turn out to be either accomplices of terrorism or capitulators to terrorists and extremists the next day. Pervez Musharraf belonged to the first category. Zardari belongs to the second. Despite nearly 60 years of close US interactions with the political and military leaderships in Pakistan, the US has not been able to acquire any enduring influence over policy-making circles in Islamabad. The US has very little to show in terms of changed policies in Islamabad  in return for its unending pampering of successive regimes in Islamabad with the injection of more and more money and military equipment. The time has come to stop pampering, but there is a reluctance in the Obama Administration---as there was in the preceding Bush Administration--- to do so due to fears that a stoppage of US assistance and pampering may result in a failed state with the control of its nuclear arsenal falling into the hands of the jihadis.

Unfortunately, the situation in Pakistan  has reached a stage where the outcome---ultimate jihadi control of the State and its nuclear arsenal--- may be the same whatever the US does -- whether it continues pampering or stops doing so. It is a thankless dilemma. It is easy to criticize the US strategy or the lack of it, but difficult to suggest a viable alternative. The starting point of an alternative strategy has to be a cordon sanitaire around the areas already under the control of the TTP and a crash programme for the economic development of the Pashtun areas not yet controlled by the Taliban. Obama's plans to spend billions of dollars in the areas of the FATA already under the control of Al Qaeda and the Taliban would produce no enduring results except to waste the US taxpayers' money. This money should be better spent on immunizing those areas where the influence of the Taliban has not yet spread.

An equally important point of the strategy should be to step up the US Predator strikes in the FATA and to extend them to Swat in order to keep the Al Qaeda and Taliban elements running for cover  all the time and make  it difficult for them to plan new strikes and get them executed.

The third point of the strategy should be to restore to the Intelligence Bureau of Pakistan its original role of primacy  as the internal intelligence and internal security agency of Pakistan. Over the years, the IB has been reduced to the position of a powerless appendage of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and its top ranks militarized through the induction of serving and retired military officers. This has to be reversed.

These are medium and long-term measures, which would take time to produce results. The questions requiring an immediate response is how to protect Pakistan from itself. How to stop the advance of the Taliban? How to confront it ideologically? For this purpose, the US needs objective allies in Pakistan. It has none so far. It has been working through opportunistic allies in the army and the political parties. They will accept all the money from the US, but will not produce results.

The objective allies have to be found in the Pashtun community. All the talk in Washington, DC about their being good Taliban and bad Taliban is ridiculous. But there are good Pashtuns and bad Pashtuns. The US should urgently identify the good Pashtuns and encourage and help them to take up the fight against the Taliban ideologically. After the elections in Pakistan in March last year, I had pointed out that the ANP, which came to power in Peshawar, was a party of good Pashtuns and that the US should work through it, forgetting its past links with the Communists in Afghanistan and the erstwhile USSR. I was given to understand that a couple of ANP leaders did visit Washingtin DC, but  beyond that nothing further was done. Now the ANP-led Government in Peshawar has conceded ideological victory to the TNSM in Swat. Despite this, the US should persist with cultivating it and other good Pashtun elements in parties such as the Pakhtoonkwa Milli Awami Party (PMAP) of Mehmood Khan Achakzai. They constitute the progressive component of the Pashtun community and they need to be strengthened and encouraged to counter the Taliban. The present US policy of depending on repeatedly failed elements in the Army and in the mainstream political parties is not working. The regional Pashtun forces have to be encouraged to take up the fight against the Taliban.

The survival of Al Qaeda in the FATA and the rise and spread of the TTP are due to support from large sections of the Pashtun community. The resistance to them has to come from the Pashtun community. It cannot come from the likes of Zardari, Gilani and Kayani.

B Raman