x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Pakistan's mountain region, once immune, now the site of insurgent violence

Pakistan’s army has gained ground recently in the country’s war against local Taliban insurgents, but a unique opportunity to capitalise on this success has been wasted. Tom Hussain reports on the damaging struggle for power between the newly elected prime minister and the military

Pakistani security officials examine the destroyed vehicle used by security forces following a bomb attack on the outskirts of Quetta, the capital of restive Baluchistan province, on May 23, 2013. A bomb planted in a rickshaw tore through a vehicle used by security forces in southwest Pakistan on May 23, killing at least 12 people, police said. AFP PHOTO / BANARAS KHAN
Pakistani security officials examine the destroyed vehicle used by security forces following a bomb attack on the outskirts of Quetta, the capital of restive Baluchistan province, on May 23, 2013. A bomb planted in a rickshaw tore through a vehicle used by security forces in southwest Pakistan on May 23, killing at least 12 people, police said. AFP PHOTO / BANARAS KHAN

Hidden away in Pakistan's northernmost territory is a wondrous landscape that combines most of the world's highest mountain peaks with valleys of fruit orchards. It's also blessed for a different reason: throughout Pakistan's 11-year war against terrorism, the virtual inaccessibility accorded by the mountains have spared Gilgit-Baltistan from the militant attacks that plagued the rest of the country.

This mountainous territory on the border with China had once been besieged instead by climbers, trekkers and hippy-trailers. The tourists fled after Al Qaeda's attack on America on September 11, 2001, but a change of name from Northern Areas in 2009, to end any confusing association between it and the Taliban-infested north-west tribal areas of Pakistan, bordering eastern Afghanistan, had slowly borne fruit. This May, as voters went to cast their ballots in the general election, more than 30 international mountaineering expeditions arrived to assault its crest of 8,000-metre peaks.

Then on June 23, the rebirth of Gilgit-Baltistan as an adventure sports destination came to an abrupt end when militants of the insurgent Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) executed all 10 members of a multinational climbing expedition at the base camp of Nanga Parbat, crowning a month-long, post-election campaign of terror. Elsewhere in Pakistan, the TTP killed and maimed dozens in a series of roadside and suicide-bombing attacks targeting the security forces and newly elected members of parliament.

Down in Quetta, the capital of the massive but sparsely populated western province of Baluchistan, which borders the southern Afghanistan strongholds of the Taliban and Iran, members of Lashkar-i-Jhangvi, an Al Qaeda affiliated group, upped the ante. A female suicide bomber climbed aboard a bus of female university students on June 15, detonating an explosion that killed 25 girls.

By the end of June, about 200 people had been murdered, presenting the newly elected Sharif administration with a sad but momentous opportunity to rally the Pakistani public against the terrorism. Security analysts called the bus bombing in Quetta a tipping point, comparing it as a moment of public outrage with the leaked video of TTP militants publicly whipping a young woman in the Swat Valley in 2009. An embattled military had withdrawn from the erstwhile tourist resort in north-west Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province and the TTP might have held onto political control, if mainstream Pakistani public opinion had not been swayed by the film that circulated via YouTube.

"For the first time since 2009, we had a 'Swat moment', in which the targeting of young women in Quetta could and should have been used to generate overwhelming public support for a decisive campaign against the terrorists," Mohammed Imran, a security analyst based in Islamabad, says.

Instead, newly elected prime minister Sharif concentrated on asserting his democratic credentials, and bashed the heads of Pakistan's civilian and military security services together, for failing to prevent the attacks. "The moment came and went, and nothing has changed," Imran sighs.

Public spirits in Pakistan should be at a five-year high. In June, the country successfully transitioned from one full-term democratic administration to another, following a largely fair general election on May 11 that was notable for its high voter turnout, and the emergence of the educated youth and the affluent classes as major forces in the country's polity.

The election result was a disaster for the outgoing left-of-centre coalition led by the Pakistan People's Party (PPP); it retained just a quarter of its seats and was virtually exiled to its southern Sindh stronghold. Its former coalition partners were also humiliated, as Pakistanis handed Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League party the outright majority its predecessors had lacked.

Former sports star Imran Khan's Movement for Justice party, in its first real election campaign, secured almost as many seats as the PPP with the backing of the new and disillusioned bloc of voters. It did well enough to form a coalition administration in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, which has borne the brunt of much of the violence arising from Pakistan's five-year counter-offensive against TTP militants, based in the seven tribal areas bordering Afghanistan.

These tribal areas, established as a buffer zone against Afghan attacks by the British in the 19th century, have been a war zone between the military and its secretive intelligence agencies, and Al Qaeda and Taliban forces since the 2001 US-led invasion of Afghanistan.

It's a confusing picture, not least for outsiders; according to a pre-election public opinion survey, half of Pakistanis were not sure whether the Taliban were their enemy or divinely-inspired freedom fighters.

Prior to the September 2001 Al Qaeda attacks on the US, the Taliban regime in Afghanistan had been wholeheartedly backed by Pakistan, which wanted a stable western neighbour ruled by an ally. That support was withdrawn only after a "with us or against us" ultimatum was delivered by the George W Bush administration. The government explained its change of tack in a media campaign that announced "Pakistan must come first", but did nothing to demonise the militants. Pakistanis took that to mean that the government had acted under compulsion and that the US was the villain of the piece - an interpretation that was later extended to the government's counteroffensive against the TTP.

The campaign themes of both Sharif and Khan were equally confusing when it came to winning Pakistan's war on terror. Khan leant far right of centre in his reading of the war, which he said was imposed by the US. If elected, he promised, he would pull Pakistan out of America's war on terror, order the air force to shoot down any CIA drones patrolling the skies over North Waziristan, and negotiate a peace with the TTP that would end the war within 60 days.

Sharif reacted as a middle-of-the-road nationalist, saying he was determined to give negotiations with the TTP a real chance. He would convince the US to discontinue drone attacks as part of a quid pro quo for Pakistan's help in persuading the Taliban to participate in peace talks in Qatar, he said, which would in turn facilitate the scheduled withdrawal of US combat troops from Afghanistan.

Their enemy, the TTP, is an organisation with a gruesome knack for manipulating Pakistani public opinion. In 2008 and 2009, it terrified Pakistanis by launching a series of suicide bomb attacks and guerrilla assaults on public targets including hotels and universities both in Islamabad, the high-security capital, and the eastern Punjab province, which is home to half the country's estimated 200 million people and the military's major source of recruits. The public deserted the streets while the Punjab chief minister, Shahbaz Sharif, the younger Sharif brother, ignominiously appealed to the TTP not to attack the province, arguing that his Pakistan Muslim League party had no role in the government's counter-terrorism operations.

During the campaign for the May general election, the TTP asserted a grim sort of political influence, declaring it would not attack candidates of the two right-wing parties, effectively freeing Sharif and Khan to campaign safely and vigorously. At the same time, the TTP launched a murderous campaign of bomb attacks against candidates representing the centre-left parties of the outgoing government, making it virtually impossible for them to campaign in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Karachi, a coastal city of 18 million people.

Elsewhere in the country, the threat of assassination forced the leaders of the moderate parties to abandon plans to speak at the massive open-air public rallies that are the traditional centre piece of a Pakistani election campaign.

The TTP election campaign concluded two days before voting on May 11 with the kidnapping of Ali Haider Gilani, son of Yousaf Raza Gilani, the prime minister from 2008 to 2012, while he campaigned in the central city of Multan.

Sharif's and Khan’s naive election promises were exposed almost immediately after the general election, when the Pakistani military retook the Tirah Valley, an isolated area near the Khyber Pass that had served as the key strategic stronghold and conduit for the militants since 2009.

Back then, when the military had first advanced into Swat and then on to the northernmost tribal areas, insurgents simply melted across the border into eastern Afghanistan and headed south to re-enter Pakistan into Tirah and onward to the southern tribal areas of South and North Waziristan. When the military later switched its attention to the TTP headquarters in South Waziristan, where the militants had established a virtual emirate, the militants fled back north to Tirah to re-ignite the insurgency there. But this time it would be different. Deprived of the safe haven of Tirah and any northward escape route, the TTP factions were unable to communicate with or re-enforce each other, and the surviving leaders were left with no option but to escape to Afghanistan, or retreat to North Waziristan, the last stronghold of the TTP and militants from around the world, including Al Qaeda chief Ayman Al Zawahiri.

A month of military successes in May was crowned by a CIA drone attack that killed Waliur Rehman, the de facto head of the TTP. Its nominal leader, Hakim-ullah Mehsud had been ruled mentally unfit to lead at a TTP ruling council meeting, ironically for ordering the assassination of the militant responsible for turning Tirah into a terrorist retreat.

The elimination of Rehman should be the final nail in the TTP coffin, according to analysts specialising in the almost impossibly complex ins and outs of tribal politics.

“His death has created a crisis of leadership because there is no obvious successor, and Hakim is in no position to make a comeback,” Mansur Khan Mahsud, director of research at the Fata Research Centre, an independent think-tank based in Islamabad, says. He believes most TTP faction leaders are war weary and want to find a politically expedient way out before they are killed, be it by CIA drones, in Pakistani military operations, or assassinated by rivals. “The few hardliners, like Hakim, all know they are dead men walking, and will fight on to the bitter end,” he says.

The military’s relief of Tirah means a decisive offensive on the North Waziristan tribal areas in the next 12 months is almost inevitable. Pakistan urgently needs to end the TTP insurgency and secure its porous northwest border before the US-led coalition forces withdraw from Afghanistan at the end of next year. Civil war between Afghan government forces and the Taliban is expected to intensify and Pakistan does not want this conflict to spill over the border, or for the TTP to utilize the chaos in Afghanistan to wage war on Pakistan from there.

Post-election, Sharif’s actions have proved a distraction from this much-needed national debate on security policy. He seemed to take affront at the re-emergence of CIA drone attacks, interpreting the military’s successful offensive as wilful disobedience of his electoral pledges, and the virtual sabotage of his plans for peace talks with the TTP.

A tug of war has ensued between the Sharif administration and the military over Pakistan’s counter-terrorist policy and who would call the shots in Islamabad. A standoff no doubt informed by Sharif’s personal experience of having been deposed in a military coup d’état led by General Pervez Musharraf in 1999.

More recently, however, Sharif appears to have learnt a valuable lesson. The bloody bombing campaign launched by the TTP and Lashkar-i-Jhangvi in June has taught him that he has to differentiate between these factions and the war-weary militant insurgents who have quietly signalled their willingness to lay down their arms and be re-assimilated into Pakistani society.

From a series of briefings on national security and foreign affairs earlier this month, Sharif also seems to have understood that the impending withdrawal of international forces from Afghanistan dictates that priority must be given to securing the northwest border, and he has since ordered the military to “cleanse the tribal areas of non-state actors”. As a result, Afghan and other militants appear to have started leaving North Waziristan.

The true impact of the prime minister’s apparent willingness to work with the military will not become clear until a conference of political party leaders he has called, probably after Ramadan, delivers a new national security policy draft. Only this month, Sharif said the document would include a policy of no conflict with Pakistan’s neighbours to boost economic growth through increased trade. Whether or not the positions of Sharif and the military have converged enough to make such a policy workable remains to be seen.

The outcome will have as much to do with the nationalist insurgency in Baluchistan province as with the counteroffensive against the TTP. While in opposition, Sharif was the only national political leader to have consistently criticised the often brutal conduct of the counter-insurgency campaign waged by federal paramilitary troops that led to the kidnapping, torture and murder of hundreds of suspected rebels and their sympathisers.

This single-minded criticism earned him his electoral majority much to the surprise of election pundits – and the leaders of the half-dozen Baluch rebel groups, who operate independently of each other, rather than as a cohesive movement. The results had initially panicked nationalist insurgents, who were stunned that ethnic Baluch voters had largely ignored their boycott call and elected an ethnic Punjabi.

Sharif has since won nationwide plaudits for using his party’s position as the single-largest party in the fragmented Baluchistan provincial assembly to engineer the election of Dr Abdul-Malik Baloch, a middle-class, moderate nationalist as chief minister. Baloch is believed to be in a position to bring about a reconciliation with rebel leaders – if and when the military relaxes its grip on affairs there.

It has been reluctant to do so, prompting Baloch to repeatedly appeal to the federal government and military to work with him to make his mission achievable. The military required Baloch and Sharif to publicly recognize its assertion that the nationalist insurgency was being fuelled by un-named foreign states, which they did in June, and have since managed to persuade other Baluch politicians to make the same face-saving concession, notably Akhtar Mengal, a nationalist who returned from self-exile in the UAE to contest the May election.

However, as was the case with the squandered opportunity presented by the Lashkar-i-Jhangvi suicide attack in June on female university students in Quetta, the political momentum created by Sharif’s electoral victory in the province has been lost to the political bickering in Islamabad.

Many Baluch rebels went underground in June but the resurgence in the past few weeks of kidnap-murder incidents, allegedly perpetuated by the paramilitary forces, cleared up the rebels’ confusion and they resumed fighting.

Not surprisingly this deeply frustrated Baloch, who only two weeks ago threatened to resign if the federal government and military did not provide him with the necessary support to seek a negotiated end to the nationalist insurgency in Baluchistan.

The surviving hard-core leaders of the TTP and allied militant organisations, despite their growing weakness in the tribal area battlegrounds, have used the time and space created by the election campaign, and subsequent bickering between Sharif and the generals, to put into effect an alternative strategy. During the election campaign, a spate of bomb attacks in Karachi highlighted that the TTP had over the last year relocated many of its fighters from the tribal areas to the populous Pakistani coastal metropolis.

It has plugged right into Karachi’s ethnic violence, which pits the political militia of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), representing the majority community of Urdu-speaking residents descended from Indian migrants, against an ethnic Baluch-led criminal gang allied with the defeated PPP.

Its Awami National Party ally was involved, too, drawing upon the resources of criminal land developers within the ethnic Pashtun community, estimated at 4 million strong. But over the last two years, it has been usurped by the TTP, which the Sindh provincial government recently said had established no-go areas in a quarter of the city’s 100-plus police station jurisdictions.

The TTP has brought a lethal combination of training, tactics and weaponry to the streets of Karachi. This year, the city’s fighters have abandoned mostly second-hand semi-automatic handguns and rifles, and embraced a massive inflow of brand-new Chinese and Russian weaponry, smuggled from Afghanistan.

Their standard weapon is now the classic AK-47 Kalashnikov assault rifle, loaded with deep-penetration armour-piercing bullets. With TTP trainers readily available, the anti-MQM gangs have upgraded to grenades, shoulder-mounted rocket launchers, and in the case of the leaders of the PPP-associated gangs, suicide-bomb jackets and Russian-made anti-aircraft heavy machineguns. More than 500 people have been killed in shooting and bombing attacks across Karachi in the last two months.

The death-toll in Karachi is about three times the number killed in terrorist attacks elsewhere in Pakistan, and paints a dreary picture, even as the military drives toward certain victory in the tribal badlands. Sharif’s administration is under growing pressure, both from Punjabi politicians in his party and Khan’s Movement for Justice, to send in the army to clean up Karachi. As prime minister in 1992, he had issued that very order, leading to the killing thousands of MQM activists and sympathisers by the security forces. Sharif is reluctant to intervene again, because he does not want to involve the military in civilian affairs; but he has also warned the PPP-led Sindh provincial government that it has to regain control of the city if it wants to avoid federal intervention that could ignite an urban war resembling 1980s Beirut.

Tom Hussain is a freelance journalist based in Islamabad. Amjad Hadayat contributed to this report from Karachi.