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Why the Pakistan Army is struggling against the Taliban

July 01, 2009 14:05 IST

The Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan headed by Baitullah Mehsud and its various constituent units in different sub-tribal areas headed by local sub-tribal chiefs have proved themselves to be more than a match for the Pakistan Army as it struggles to cope with a spreading arc of Taliban presence and operations right across the Pashtun tribal belt and with its undamaged ability to hit beyond the frontlines in cities and cantonments located in non-tribal areas whenever it wants.

Widespread Pashtun anger against the US and the Pakistani military continues to be the main motivating force of the TTP. There are no signs -- at least not yet -- that feelings of Pashtun nationalism influence the TTP's operations. The TTP sees itself more as a Pashtun self-defence movement to protect the Pashtuns against attempts to change their way of life by the Pakistani authorities allegedly at the instance of the US.

The TTP asserts the right of the Pashtuns to have their lives and criminal justice system regulated by the Sharia if they so desire without being dictated to on this subject by non-Pashtun elements. It also asserts the right of the Pashtuns to govern themselves

according to their tribal and sub-tribal customs without interference by Pakistani civil servants and military officers.

It wants the tribes and the sub-tribes to be left alone to manage their affairs in their territory as they please without any interference from Islamabad. It strongly adheres to traditions of Pashtun solidarity wherever they are located in Pakistan or Afghanistan and traditions of Pashtun hospitality to their guests -- even if such guests be the Arabs of Al Qaeda. While it accepts the right of any Muslim -- Pashtun or non-Pashtun, Arab or non-Arab -- to take shelter in Pashtun territory if they are faced with danger from non-Muslims, it rejects any role for non-Muslims -- whether American or non-American -- in Pashtun territory.

It looks upon the post-9/11 operations of the US against Al Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban, with the assistance of Pakistan, as an attempt to advance a non-Muslim and a non-Pashtun agenda in the Pashtun areas. The fact that there has been hardly any Pashtun input from Pakistan into the formulation of the so-called Af-Pak strategy of the Obama Administration has made its strategy strongly suspect in the TTP's eyes.

While the TTP enjoys a growing measure of support among the tribes and sub-tribes of the Federally-Administered Tribal Areas and the Malakand Division of the North-West Frontier Province, its support base in the rest of the NWFP and in the large Pashtun community of Karachi, which has reportedly even more Pashtuns than Peshawar, continues to be thin because of the strong influence of the progressive Awami National Party in those areas.

The US policy towards the Pashtuns, which tends to be influenced by Pakistani experts such as Ahmed Rashid, who seek more the applause of American audiences than of the Pashtun populace, has not had the benefit of the intellectual inputs of the sons of the Pashtun soil, who understand the feelings of their fellow Pashtuns better than experts like Rashid, who look at the Pashtun problem more from the geo-strategic aspect than from the angle of Pashtun self-respect.

Next to the Punjabis, the Pashtuns have always contributed since the birth of Pakistan in 1947 a large number of soldiers and officers to the Pakistan Army (about 20 per cent plus). The FATA and Malakand have a large number of trained and experienced ex-servicemen. It would not be an exaggeration to say that there is hardly a Pashtun family in the FATA, which does not have an ex-serviceman among its members. Taking advantage of the failure of the Pakistan Army to look after these ex-servicemen and keep them on its side, the TTP has managed to mobilise many of them and has been using their services not only for training its cadres but also for the execution of its operations.

While young new recruits have been in the forefront of its suicide operations in the non-tribal and tribal areas, the ex-servicemen have been playing an important role in its conventional military operations and in its guerilla strikes.

The TTP has a more comprehensive and well thought-out strategy for countering the Pakistan Army than the army has for countering the TTP. The TTP has been using a good repertoire of military and sub-military tactics -- ambushes, frontal attacks, diversionary strikes and suicide terrorism -- in its fight against the army.

After having got the army bogged down in certain parts of the Swat Valley, it has spread its diversionary attacks to the Bajaur Agency, the Kurram Agency and North Waziristan. It has tried to pre-empt an expected military strike in South Waziristan, the stronghold of the Mehsuds, by further activating the fighting in the Kurram and North Waziristan Agencies.

It has prevented the diversion of Pakistani Army reinforcements to South Waziristan from Swat by fresh movements and attacks in the Swat Valley. Even Richard Holbrooke, the US special envoy for the Pakistan-Afghanistan region, has conceded that claims of a Pakistani victory in Swat could be premature.

The coherent strategy of the TTP has not been matched by an equally coherent one from Pakistan Chief of the Army Staff General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani. He has been struggling to counter the co-ordinated strategy of the TTP with a bits and pieces strategy depending on where the pressure from the TTP comes from. Today in Swat, tomorrow in Bajaur, the day after in South Waziristan, then in Kurram and North Waziristan -- so it goes. There is no proactive element in his strategy. He is fire-fighting and not waging a proactive war of attrition against the TTP. The Pakistan Army has been suffering a lot of attrition.

Unless and until there is a re-thinking on the strategy imparting to it greater coherence, the Pakistan Army may not be able to make a quick headway in its operations against the TTP.

B Raman