x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Has Islamabad been outplayed?

Eight months ago, the Pakistani government called a halt to a five-year counterterrorism operation that had put the Taliban on the back foot. But its conciliatory approach has since backfired, writes Tom Hussain

Maulana Fazlullah, the chief of TTP, the Pakistani Taliban, in a screen grab from video footage in which he was speaking to local journalists in the Swat Valley. AFP
Maulana Fazlullah, the chief of TTP, the Pakistani Taliban, in a screen grab from video footage in which he was speaking to local journalists in the Swat Valley. AFP

“Tired of condemning TTP. Tired of condoling. Tired of funerals. Sick of ostrich politics. Since of convincing cowards TTP = enemy. Wake the *** up!”

That’s how Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, the 25-year-old leader of the Pakistan People’s Party and son of the two-time former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, summed up the government’s naive politics towards the country’s Taliban insurgents on his Twitter feed. Throughout a wave of terrorist attacks that, from mid-December to January, claimed 436 lives, the youthful politician had been a lonely voice, bravely pointing out the futility of seeking negotiations with the TTP, shorthand for the Urdu-language name for the Pakistani Taliban.

Belatedly, horrified Pakistanis are realising that the government has been played by the TTP.

For a country that has suffered six years of militant insurgency, the political narrative of Pakistan has remained confoundedly confused about the agenda of the terrorists who have killed more than 40,000 people, one in 10 of them soldiers. A survey before last May’s general election found that almost half of Pakistanis still thought that the TTP were, at worst, misguided good guys.

That narrative played strongly through the election campaign, during which Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz party and the former cricket star Imran Khan’s Movement for Justice both favoured talks over a decisive, final military assault on the militants’ remaining strongholds in the north-west tribal areas bordering Afghanistan.

Sharif earnestly believed the narrative about the TTP being misguided and thought they could be persuaded to lay down their weapons, while Khan said the insurgents had rebelled because the government was fighting “America’s war” against them.

Both were exempted from the TTP attacks on election candidates, which were focused on the liberal parties of the outgoing coalition government, led by the Pakistan People’s Party, which had in 2009 given the army the go-ahead to strike back at the TTP with all means necessary, after it had occupied the settled district of Swat, and then spread westward towards the capital, Islamabad.

By last May, the 150,000 Pakistani soldiers arrayed against the TTP had driven them into a final stronghold in the Mir Ali area of North Waziristan, the only tribal agency still territorially ruled by the insurgents and their Al Qaeda allies. Battlefield momentum suggested a final assault was near.

That changed when the election results came in, with Sharif’s party taking a clear majority and Khan’s winning in northern Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, which neighbours the tribal areas straddling the borders with eastern Afghanistan.

Appointed prime minister in June, Sharif suspended the counterterrorism operations and sought talks with the TTP, even after the Taliban defiantly killed an army general, several politicians and bombed a church in Khyber-Pakhtunkwa. For seven months, the militants played hard-to-get, while Sharif and Khan bickered over the terms of negotiations with the TTP.

Behind the scenes within the TTP, things have changed greatly since November, when Mullah Fazlullah assumed leadership after a US drone assassinated his predecessor, Hakimullah Mehsud, a divisive character who had been sidelined by his own people in December 2012 as a leader incapable of fighting a successful war against the Pakistani state.

Their choice of Fazlullah is revealing. The new TTP chief is the man who started the insurgency by occupying the settled Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa district of Swat, leading militants to two victories against the army in 2007 and 2008, and then secured a 2009 agreement with the government that allowed him to impose his interpretation of Islamic law there.

His brutality as an administrator was unrivalled: he cut off heads, had corpses publicly displayed, women flogged and ordered the shooting of the student activist Malala Yousafzai, who’d reported events in the TTP-run state for the BBC.

Today his ambitions are equally unrivalled: he wants to take over the country. This much was made clear when he sent his forces westward in 2009 to seize control, one by one, of the handful of valleys between Swat and Islamabad.

His notoriety is what shifted public opinion in 2009, leading to the retaking of Swat by the army that heralded the country’s fight-back in earnest.

In the eyes of his fellow militants, Fazlullah has the credentials that his predecessors lacked and the 30-plus serious militant factions making up the TTP have united behind him. This new resolve quickly enabled him to install a new command-and-control structure, and plot a counteroffensive that by January had reversed key gains of the six-year government offensive.

His deadly winter campaign reveals much about Fazlullah’s wider strategic aims: first, the TTP has retaken the strategic Tirah Valley of the Khyber tribal agency, which is immediately adjacent to Peshawar. The military’s re-taking of Tirah in a three-month assault up to May last year was hailed as a major strategic victory. For the first time, the army managed to close a key conduit between the northern and southern tribal areas, one which had previously enabled the TTP to strategically withdraw or reinforce forces in response to counterterrorism operations. The retaking of the Khyber tribal agency means settled areas of northern Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, which neighbour the tribal areas, are once again under threat by the TTP. It doesn’t have the means to occupy territory, but can launch attacks there almost at will, with the province accounting for more than half the deaths caused by the TTP winter offensive.

Second, the TTP has expanded into Pakistan’s major cities on an unprecedented scale. Peshawar, the provincial capital, was relatively safe before the government called the unilateral ceasefire. It is now the city most frequently hit by the insurgents, and its ring road, rather than acting as a traffic conduit, is “completely under the control of the militants after dark”, according to the senator Haji Adeel of the Awami National Party, an ethnic Pashtun nationalist party based in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa.

Last month’s wave of back-to-back terrorist attacks on military and police personnel in Rawalpindi, a city adjacent to Islamabad that houses army headquarters, is telling. It demonstrates that the TTP can deploy terrorist squads at the army’s front door with impunity, evading the military’s powerful Inter Services Intelligence in the process.

Such an assault had not happened since 2009 when, in retaliation for an army operation against the-then TTP headquarters in the South Waziristan tribal agency, a terrorist squad assaulted army headquarters in October that year, and held officers hostage.

More alarmingly, the TTP has demonstrated over the past month its ability to wage war in the southern port city of Karachi, a metropolis of more than 18 million people, and the backbone of Pakistan’s weak economy.

The growing presence of the TTP, over the last year, has injected another dimension of violence to the city, the victim of wide-scale, politically driven violence among Karachi’s ethnic communities, driving a surge in sectarian attacks that, combined with other political violence, claimed the lives of more than 2,500 people in 2013. Karachi is now the most violent city in the world.

In January, the TTP launched a campaign there in earnest, murdering the city’s top counterterrorism official, Chaudhry Aslam, and it has since been battling police officers and supporting paramilitary units in a campaign that has instantly added to Karachi’s formidable daily death toll.

In late January, Sharif issued the equivalent of a final warning to the TTP, saying talks would be subject to a cessation of attacks, but nonetheless left the door open for one last try. Tentative efforts towards this end stalled on Tuesday.

Most Pakistani politicians, including those in Sharif’s party, are convinced that a fresh counterterrorism offensive is inevitable, and that complete victory over the TTP would follow relatively shortly. The timing of that operation would depend on the duration of any talks.

However, that prognosis is likely to prove as naive as Sharif’s decision to declare a unilateral government ceasefire after becoming prime minister last June.

The TTP, even before the ascension of Fazlullah, anticipated the loss of their tribal strongholds, and prepared by moving their people into urban centres around the country, including cities in eastern Punjab province. There, they have yet to show themselves, but will do so to stage revenge attacks when the army finally strikes at the TTP stronghold of Mir Ali in the North Waziristan tribal agency, said TTP insiders, who spoke on condition of anonymity. The government has received similar intelligence.

Having moved his chess pieces into place, Fazlullah may choose to suspend terrorist attacks and engage in dialogue with the government, but only to buy further time to strengthen his hand for the future. On the other side, the government has only two options to either surrender or hit back. When it turns to its military to end the game, the TTP will launch tit-for-tat attacks in Pakistan’s cities against security and public targets.

The almost inevitable result will be violence on a scale as yet unseen in six years of civil war.

Tom Hussain is an Islamabad-based freelance journalist. Amjad Hadayat contributed to this report.