Dispatch

Four Reasons for Optimism in Pakistan

Pakistan's military and government is finally turning the tide against the Taliban. Isn't it time we give them a little credit?

STR/AFP/Getty Images
STR/AFP/Getty Images

We in Pakistan constantly hear that our country is a hopeless mess, an ungovernable shamble of a state whose military and intelligence services are more or less on the side of global terrorists and local insurgents. But few observers seem to have noticed that, over the last five months or so, Pakistan has made an astonishing turnaround. In fact, it’s time for cautious optimism about my country’s fate.

For one thing, the militants are reeling from a series of significant blows. The dramatic capture of Muslim Khan and four other Taliban militants in a Sept. 3 military-intelligence sting operation is just the latest deadly strike against the embattled Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). It represents the third major setback for the dreaded outfit since Aug. 5, when a CIA-operated drone missile took out Baitullah Mehsud, TTP’s founder and chief.

Only a few days after Mehsud’s death, TTP spokesman Maulvi Muhammad Omar was captured in the Mohmand tribal region. The fate of Hakimullah Mehsud, whom the organization’s shura purportedly picked as the new chief on Aug. 25, is still uncertain, with virtually no sign of him since the day he was made the ameer. Similarly, another fierce al Qaeda-aligned TTP leader, Maulvi Fazlullah, is handicapped by serious wounds and reportedly under siege — probably counting his days as a free icon of terror. And Shah Dauran, an infamous associate of Fazlullah who used to spread terror through mobile FM radio airwaves, is now dead.

Khan, as TTP spokesman in the Swat Valley, had owned up to scores of suicide bombings against security forces and admitted attacks on dozens of girls’ schools in the Swat region. Khan also claimed responsibility on behalf of the TTP for sending two suicide bombers to a weapons-manufacturing complex — the Pakistan Ordnance Factories near Islamabad — where about 90 people were blown into pieces in April 2008 in one of the deadliest attacks in Pakistan’s recent history.

The sting operation became possible only after Kamal Khan, an old acquaintance of Muslim Khan now living in the United States, agreed to become part of the game. The strategy to capture the TTP spokesman aimed to create a facade of negotiations and trap the militants, who had been publicly vowing attacks on Pakistani government institutions.

Kamal Khan and Pakistan’s Military Intelligence, a division of the Pakistani Army, moved in tandem and eventually a raid involving some six dozen commandos resulted in Muslim Khan’s capture at a village called Mangalore, some 7 miles southwest of Mingora, the administrative capital of the Swat district.

"It was purely an intelligence-driven operation," a senior Army official overseeing the operation told me. "It was not a smooth affair. Six of their guards got killed in the firefight that erupted when the commandos moved in."

As a whole, the events since Aug. 5, when a U.S. drone strike put Baitullah Mehsud to sleep forever, underline a pattern that should evoke optimism and confidence both inside and outside Pakistan. It also erases fears of a potentially drawn-out conflict in the tribal areas. Let us consider why.

First, the Army and civilians alike were shocked and alarmed in early April when the TTP militants, taking cover under a controversial peace deal, began occupying strategic locations in Buner, Mingora, Malam Jabba, and parts of Malakand. Their worries multiplied when Taliban militants abducted four Pakistani Army commandos in the mountainous Buner Valley and eventually executed them.

"When the pet develops rabies and starts biting its own mentors, it must be put to sleep, no way around it," a senior general involved in military operations in the North-West Frontier Province told me in late April, suggesting a definite new realization — if not change of heart altogether — that as far as the military establishment was concerned, the militants had gone too far. Until that point, the Army’s claims that it was doing its best to hunt down "miscreants" were met with skepticism across the board.

The common perception in Pakistan and elsewhere is that the country’s security establishment — because of long-standing relationships with militant outfits — was only shadowboxing to impress the world and would not actually harm those it had once created. But the military’s efforts in the Swat Valley and now in Khyber have helped diminish this view — at least partially, anyway. Military officials claim that close to 350 soldiers and officers have lost their lives since the operation in the Malakand and Swat regions was launched in early May.

Currently, the Army, backed up by local officials, is pursuing a two-pronged strategy: chasing and catching militants with one hand, and protecting civilians from the wrath of despairing militants with the other, all while consolidating its hold on cleared areas.

Some observers, nevertheless, think much more needs to be done. "The credibility of the state’s ability to fix rogue elements is also at stake," said retired Lt. Gen. Talat Masood, now a defense analyst. "Pakistani state institutions have to deliver as an increasingly skeptical and cynical public looks to its government not only for safety but also for a radical improvement in governance," Masood added.

A second favorable indicator is the return of more than 1.65 million people displaced by the fighting since mid-July to their homes in the Malakand region. This underscores that perceptions of the Pakistani military’s complicity with the extremist movements have given way to more confidence in the government and Army actions against "miscreants."

And the icing on the cake came with the arrests of Muslim Khan and the four other central leaders of the TTP’s Swat chapter, which now appears to be facing defeat by attrition. These captures served as a huge psychological boost not only for the civilian administration but also for the forces battling the militants.

Mayors of several subdistricts in Swat, particularly those of Kabal, Koza Bandai, Matta, and Chaharbagh, have meanwhile returned from self-imposed exile in safer towns such as Peshawar, Mardan, and Islamabad to revive public confidence in government institutions. But most mainstream politicians, and members of parliament in particular, still feel insecure and intimidated by the militants.

"It is now the politicians’ turn to get back home and lead the community from the front," said political analyst Anees Jeelani. He says the security forces can do this job only partially. Giving permanence to the entire process — establishing the government’s writ, rebuilding homes and businesses, and rehabilitating former militants — requires politicians to lead from the front.

The third reason for optimism is the interception of dozens of alleged suicide bombers in northwest Pakistan and the subsequent drop in such attacks. The biggest reason for this could be confusion and disarray among the TTP ranks, which have suffered one blow after another since early August.

Lastly, most of Pakistan’s Western allies, led by the United States, are now more grateful to Islamabad for its actions against militants.

"One of the ways I measure progress is … I look at Pakistan over the last 12 months and the success of their Frontier Corps, the success of their military in terms of its operations in Swat and the movement in that direction to address the extremists in their own country," chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, said at a Sept. 5 Pentagon news conference.

We’ve come a long way since last September, when Pakistani Army chief Gen. Ashfaq Kayani issued a veiled warning against the repeat of a ground assault by helicopter-borne U.S. Marines in South Waziristan. The level of trust between the two armies has considerably improved over the past year, though the United States has yet to give Pakistan the Predator drone technology that has taken out several top al Qaeda and Taliban leaders in the country. Intelligence sharing has gone up and so has coordination, reflected in the presence of a large number of U.S. military and intelligence assets in the Waziristan region alongside Pakistani forces.

As a whole, the war against the militants seems in full swing. Operations in the Khyber agency against criminals calling themselves Taliban, as well as the Pakistani Air Force’s bombardment of suspected militant hide-outs in Waziristan, continue. So has the push in the Swat region, where large areas have been cleared and handed over to civilian authorities.

Pakistanis writ large therefore expect that their Army and the government will remain united and take this war to its logical conclusion, namely, bringing people like Muslim Khan and Hakimullah Mehsud to justice and making them accountable for the deaths and destruction that have taken place in Pakistan since the formation of the TTP in December 2007. Hopefully, these developments will continue, injecting new optimism into the security debate and reviving Pakistani confidence in state institutions.

And we should not be surprised if, as a result of Muslim Khan’s interrogations, his mentor Maulvi Fazlullah also gets captured — perhaps timed to coincide with President Asif Ali Zardari’s trip to New York to host a "Friends of Democratic Pakistan" summit on Sept. 24, at which he is expected to urge the world to better compensate Pakistan for its efforts against extremists, who under the tutelage of al Qaeda still pose a grave threat to the entire region. But perhaps now it’s time the international community shows it is willing to reward success.

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