The South Asia Channel

Owning it: Time for the military to step up in Pakistan

As Pakistan’s army chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani was declaring the "fight against extremism and terrorism" as his own war at the Pakistan Military Academy (PMA) Kakul (located less than a mile away from the now demolished bin Laden villa in Abbottabad) on August 13, militants were planning two audacious attacks: One against a key ...

A. MAJEED/AFP/Getty Images
A. MAJEED/AFP/Getty Images

As Pakistan’s army chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani was declaring the "fight against extremism and terrorism" as his own war at the Pakistan Military Academy (PMA) Kakul (located less than a mile away from the now demolished bin Laden villa in Abbottabad) on August 13, militants were planning two audacious attacks: One against a key security installation in the country’s heartland, and another on innocent civilians in the remote northern areas.

Less than 72 hours after Kayani’s address, which many observers termed a landmark speech because of its tone, wording and timing, nine armed men in uniforms belonging to security forces mounted a daring attack on Minhas Airbase Kamra, located less than 70 kilometers west of the country’s capital Islamabad, on the Grand Trunk (GT) Road leading to Peshawar.

The second attack, more barbarous in nature, was carried out in the Bubusar area of Mansehra district, located around 100 miles north of Islamabad, where armed men wearing military uniforms forced 20 Shia Muslims off a passenger bus and shot them at point blank range.

Responsibility for both the attacks was claimed by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the group considered by the Pakistani government to be the ‘bad Taliban.’ Both the attacks were not the first of their kind. The Minhas Airbase in Kamra was the third major attack on a military base since 2009, while the killing of Shias in Mansehra was the third incident of its nature in the past six months.

Over the years, Pakistan’s army and intelligence agencies have been under severe criticism over their failure — and, many believe, their willful negligence — in dealing with the various Taliban and sectarian groups that continue to keep their bases and training facilities in the tribal areas, and spread their tentacles to cities as far away as Karachi and Lahore.

Better late than never

In this context, General Kayani’s statement, given the day before Pakistan’s Independence Day, is of utmost importance. The country’s most powerful man touched the right chord by warning of a "civil war" and calling the fight against terrorism "our own war."

Aside from falling right before Independence Day, the timing of General Kayani’s statement is significant for a number of reasons: Pakistan’s ambassador to Washington Sherry Rehman and the country’s Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar have recently openly stated that the days of strategic depth — Pakistan’s pursuit of its interests in Afghanistan by working to install a Pakistan-friendly government, as well as keeping India away from establishing a foothold in the country — are over. Pakistan’s spymaster Zaheerul Islam also held "productive" talks with his CIA counterpart David Petraeus during his recent visit to Washington. And U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, after months of frustrating efforts to convince Pakistan to take action against the militant groups operating on its soil, expressed some degree of optimism by telling Reuters that Pakistan will be launching an operation against militants in North Waziristan.

Is there room for suspicion?

Judging by its wording and tone, General Kayani’s Independence Day statement leaves no room for suspicions about the intention of the Pakistani security establishment with regards to extremism and terrorism. Yet, Sec. Panetta’s latest revelation, despite its optimism, leaves some question marks when he states that the main target of the possible operation in North Waziristan will be the Pakistani Taliban rather than the Haqqani network.

The point in question is: has Pakistan really done away with the ‘strategic depth’ approach towards Afghanistan? If so, what keeps the country’s armed forces from going after individuals such as the Haqqanis, Hafiz Gul Bahadar, (a leader of Taliban fighters in North Waziristan who is believed to have good ties with the Pakistani establishment as well as in close contacts with the Arab fighters), and Maulvi Nazeer (a militant commander based in the Wana area of South Waziristan, Wazir is an anti-U.S. but pro-Pakistan leader, and liked by the Pakistani establishment),  instead of chasing the already shattered TTP?

After all, individuals forming the TTP umbrella, such as Hakimullah Mehsud, (leader of the TTP in South Waziristan), Faqir Muhammad, (the Taliban leader in Bajaur tribal agency) Fazlullah (a Taliban leader from Swat who is believed to have escaped into Afghanistan and to be involved in carrying out attacks on Pakistani civilians and security forces from there) and the warlord Mangal Bagh (head of the banned Lashkar-e-Islam) were once overlooked for being the ‘good guys,’ but are now turning their guns on innocent civilians as well as the country’s strategic installations.  

Another duplicity that still provides room for suspicion is the freedom of propaganda and movement allowed to people such as Hafiz Muhammad Saeed. The banned Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) chief, who is wanted in India for the 2008 Mumbai attacks, and is the subject of a bounty put out by the United States calling for information leading to his arrest, is still leading pro-jihad rallies in major Pakistani cities, including the capital, without being stopped or even warned by the authorities.

This kind of willful negligence with regards to people such as Hafiz Saeed, Gul Bahadar and Maulvi Nazeer, as well as groups like the Haqqani Network, is calling the writ of the state into question for ordinary Pakistanis, who have already lost trust in their political and military leadership for a number of other reasons.

For years, Pakistan has been accused of having a double standard regarding its actions against the militants by its allies and neighbors. This is the first time since Musharraf’s era that the world is hearing Pakistan’s top cop owning the anti-terror war in the strongest words, which is refreshing.

However, Pakistanis and non-Pakistanis alike want General Kayani to adopt an evenhanded approach towards all militants. People across the country welcomed the army when they ousted the Taliban from Swat in May 2009, and helped return the displaced people to their houses within a few months.

All of this goodwill was washed away when the army went after the TTP in South Waziristan the same year, though. Nothing resulted from that operation, except the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people, many of whom are still living in refugee camps. The people of the Bajaur tribal agency, where the army launched an operation in mid-2008, have yet to return to their houses. Similarly, the people of Bara district in the Khyber tribal agency have been living under a curfew for the past three years, while thousands of former residents are living in refugee camps with no sign of calm returning to their homes. And the militants are still targeting leaders who challenged the Taliban and raised Lashkars (peace committees) in their respective areas.

Those are the factors that shatter the people’s trust in the state and its security agencies. To win their support like General Kayani wants to do, the political and military leadership need to conduct meaningful operations against all the militant groups in Pakistan, and block the escape routes of their leaders to prevent the repetition of what happened in the cases of Mullah Fazlullah, Faqir Muhammad, Mangal Bagh and Hakimullah Mehsud, all of whom escaped previous military campaigns. Only then will the public come forward and own the war alongside the Pakistani government and security forces.

Daud Khattak is a Pakistani journalist who writes about FATA, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Khattak worked for several Pakistani newspapers in Peshawar and Islamabad as well as for several years in Kabul, Afghanistan.

Daud Khattak is a senior editor of Radio Mashaal for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Prague. The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not represent those of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Twitter: @daudkhattak1

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