Militants thrive on Pakistan’s military failures

While the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) troops have been using air power against the Taliban and other militant groups in Afghanistan, Pakistani troops in recent operations have resorted to the same tactics, tactics which have resulted in few gains and a rising civilian death toll. Particularly in ongoing military operations in the troubled ...

HASHAM AHMED/AFP/Getty Images

While the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) troops have been using air power against the Taliban and other militant groups in Afghanistan, Pakistani troops in recent operations have resorted to the same tactics, tactics which have resulted in few gains and a rising civilian death toll. Particularly in ongoing military operations in the troubled Waziristan region, and lately in the Khyber Agency, these strikes are beginning to spur a major reaction amongst local populations; in one such strike in April, which later prompted an apology from the Pakistani army chief General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, over 70 civilians were killed in the remote Tirah Valley of Khyber tribal agency, a mountainous area between Khyber and Orakzai agencies and on the border with Afghanistan.

While the April incident sparked widespread anger from the local population, at the same time the Pakistani press lauded Kayani for his public statement requesting an apology from the victims of the ‘mistaken' bombing. However, to the dismay of many, particularly the tribesmen and elders from Tirah, another ‘mistaken' bombing on August 31 killed dozens of civilians, though the exact number is not known due to remoteness of the area.

Both strikes targeted the head of a Lashkar-e-Islam, Mangal Bagh, who escaped both times; however, while the people of Tirah accepted the apology of the Pakistani army chief the first time, they are in no mood to be as generous after the second failed strike.

While the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) troops have been using air power against the Taliban and other militant groups in Afghanistan, Pakistani troops in recent operations have resorted to the same tactics, tactics which have resulted in few gains and a rising civilian death toll. Particularly in ongoing military operations in the troubled Waziristan region, and lately in the Khyber Agency, these strikes are beginning to spur a major reaction amongst local populations; in one such strike in April, which later prompted an apology from the Pakistani army chief General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, over 70 civilians were killed in the remote Tirah Valley of Khyber tribal agency, a mountainous area between Khyber and Orakzai agencies and on the border with Afghanistan.

While the April incident sparked widespread anger from the local population, at the same time the Pakistani press lauded Kayani for his public statement requesting an apology from the victims of the ‘mistaken’ bombing. However, to the dismay of many, particularly the tribesmen and elders from Tirah, another ‘mistaken’ bombing on August 31 killed dozens of civilians, though the exact number is not known due to remoteness of the area.

Both strikes targeted the head of a Lashkar-e-Islam, Mangal Bagh, who escaped both times; however, while the people of Tirah accepted the apology of the Pakistani army chief the first time, they are in no mood to be as generous after the second failed strike.

Bagh, the bus driver turned militant leader who ran an army of volunteers in Bara area of Khyber Agency, located just 15 kilometers south-east of Peshawar as recently as 2009, is not the first militant commander to have evaded arrest or bombing.

The Waziristan-based Hakimullah Mehsud and his key commanders, Bajaur-based Maulvi Faqir Muhammad, Mohmand-based Abul Wali (alias Omar Khalid) and Maulana Fazlullah of Swat, have already escaped such strikes before. And instead of curtailing their operations in face of a more aggressive Pakistani military effort, these militant leaders have broken the cordon of the security forces around their respective agencies to stage new attacks against the Pakistani government, army and people in the country’s heartland and major cities.

Despite being ill-equipped, surrounded and observed constantly, these leaders managed to escape each time Pakistani forces surrounded their sanctuaries. Their evasions not only frustrated the efforts of the Pakistani army, but also deepened the awe and fear the militant commanders inspire among regular Pakistanis. On the one hand, civilians are fed up with the nearly daily bombings, targeted killings, harassment and kidnappings perpetrated by the militants. But as more civilians die in failed attempts to kill militants with no visible progress in curtailing militant activities, support for the government among the population decreases.

Indeed, because of the government’s inability to eliminate militant groups and their leaders, the people in the Federally-Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) continue to feel threatened and intimidated. A massive operation in May 2009 in Swat against Maulana Fazlullah and his brigades of gun-wielding men was no doubt a success for the Pakistan army. Yet even a year later, Swat cannot be called "safe"; Fazlullah is still alive as evidenced by his video address to a ‘squad of suicide bombers,’ later released to the Pakistani media (a copy is also in the author’s possession). These remarks, made at an undisclosed location, are enough for the people of Swat to be reminded of his presence, and fear his eventual return.

A similar operation conducted in South Waziristan in October 2009 claimed a landmark victory against the militants led by Hakimullah Mehsud, Qari Hussain and Wali-ur-Rehman. Yet suicide bombings and targeted killings in and around the region are still rampant. The August suicide blast on a mosque in South Waziristan that killed former lawmaker Maulvi Noor Muhammad, the May attack on former parliamentarian Maulana Merajuddin and the blast earlier this month at a police station in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa’s Lakki Marwat all point to the persistent strength of the militants in the area.

Instead of showing signs of weakness, the emboldened militants are now staging attacks in cities like Peshawar, Lahore, Karachi and even the country’s central capital Islamabad. From the daring attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in the country’s eastern city of Lahore in 2009 to the devastating multiple suicide blasts in the same city on a procession of Shia mourners on September 1 and the recent blasts in Peshawar and Lakki Marwat, one can not say with authority that the Taliban are showing any signs of slowing down.

Rather, they are reaching the cities once considered safe. Looking at the marked increase in Taliban-related violence in the Pakistani cities, one wonders about the logic behind the recent statement of the country’s Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi saying the increase in violence was reaction to the ‘successful operations’ against the Taliban.   

Judging on the basis of the spike in violence and the intensity of the attacks, it is easy to presume that the militants are on the offensive. And this aggressive posture is linked to the fact that the militant leadership is still alive despite the use of all available resources to hunt them, from jet bombings, to artillery shelling and large-scale incursions into the militants’ territory.

In such a situation, the repercussions are getting grim for the government and the army when a mistaken bombing claim civilian lives, creating pockets of support for the militants instead of rooting them out.

Daud Khattak is a Pashtun journalist currently working for the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Pashto-language station Radio Mashaal.

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