x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

The man who's defeating Pakistan's Taliban

The commander of paramilitary force responsible for controlling the country's tribal areas is confident the insurgents can be defeated.

Maj Gen Tariq Khan, the commander of Pakistan's paramilitary Frontier Corps.
Maj Gen Tariq Khan, the commander of Pakistan's paramilitary Frontier Corps.

PESHAWAR // More than any other individual, Maj Gen Tariq Khan has stamped his mark on Pakistan's military campaign against militants over the past two years. Maj Gen Khan, the commander of the Frontier Corps, a 50,000-strong paramilitary force charged with controlling the tribal areas, has taken a controversial, iron-fisted approach to tackling the Pakistani Taliban. "No militant is going to get away. We will finish them off. There will be no more peace deals anywhere," said the general. He spoke to The National in his office inside the massive fortifications of the Bala Hisar Fort, which has 2,500-year old foundations and covers six hectares of central Peshawar, the capital of the troubled North West Frontier Province. The scion of the Nawabs of Tank, a family that held sway over an area neighbouring the South Waziristan tribal area for more than 400 years, the general is known among his comrades as a fighting commander. He is adamant that since he took command in August last year, the campaign has gone well. "We've done OK," he said. "It was a bad situation. Military operations were not all-encompassing. The government was indifferent. Things got worse. The encroachment of the militants led to an all-out operation against militants a week after I took command in the Bajaur tribal area," he said. In September, Maj Gen Khan's forces bombed, strafed and mortared an entrenched network of militants in Bajaur. Nearly 100 soldiers and 150 civilians were killed and the army says more than 1,600 militants also died. The first militia of the corps, the Khyber Rifles, was raised by the British Raj-era officers in 1873. But Maj Gen Khan said that throughout history the corps, it had never lost so many men. "On one day at Loe Sam in Bajaur, I lost 30 men," he said. The devastation was such that hundreds of thousands of locals fled Bajaur and much of the area was levelled. Responding to the criticism that he had been heavy-handed, the general said: "We could not afford to flounder. It had become a safe haven and a strategic point for terrorists who put up strong resistance. We wanted Bajaur to be a lesson. We had to show our strength." Since then the general's forces have been deployed to fight in all seven tribal areas under his command. For the past three months, he has commanded operations in Buner, 100km north-west of Islamabad, where a Taliban advance sparked American alarm and triggered a concerted Pakistani counteroffensive. His forces have also been committed in Dir, another area adjoining Swat - where the regular army is deployed - and he sent extra troops to South Waziristan where the army is preparing for an offensive against the stronghold of the head of the Pakistani Taliban, Baitullah Mehsud. Maj Gen Khan pointed out that during a previous assignment when he was posted to the Tank area as a brigadier, he had chased Mehsud deep into his own area with a company of men. "We could have captured him but then the negotiations reopened with him," he said with a strong air of disappointment. The general said that the highest number of al Qa'eda and Taliban arrests had been made by the Frontier Corps. "We have had no reversal, no desertions, we have cleared vast areas of militants, and no fort has been overrun," said the general. "I have lost 400 men and 1,500 are injured. It is the highest toll of any institution," he added. Indeed, like the regular army, the paramilitary Frontier Corps had previously suffered several humiliating defeats at the hands of tribal militants. Individual soldiers performed extraordinary feats of bravery but the military command appears at a loss over how to combat militants with whom it had struck a series of peace deals. Despite his bulk and age, the general made a point of raising morale among his troops by sleeping out in the field. The simple gesture was made at a time when few senior officers had shown a commitment to the operation against the Pakistani Taliban. The general says that his force is now engaged in opening up the final stretches of road and border passes in Bajaur. "We are in the process of taking refugees back. We have not prompted animosity among locals. The people are with us," he said. He added that, as in neighbouring Mohmand, "no one is standing up to us or resisting. They are leaving roadside bombs and taking sniper shots. People are pointing out where they are and we are acting against them." But the force is under great pressure. A few months ago, 200 militants swarmed an outpost in Mohmand tribal agency, triggering a gun battle that killed 25 militants and wounded 11 Frontier Corps soldiers. The force is deployed against increasingly combative militants in Khyber and Orakzai tribal agencies. The general is nearing the end of a recruitment drive to increase the force, which is largely drawn from the frontier's tribes, by 7,000 men. The US is supplying equipment and counterinsurgency training. Maj Gen Khan is training "strike forces" modelled on commando units, which he will be able to deploy quickly against pockets of militants. "Morale has never been higher. The tribes are queuing up to join. Never before have we had the luxury of selecting men so rigorously," he said. iwilkinson@thenational.ae