x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Pashtuns on collision course for NWFP war

An ultimatum by Baitullah Mehsud to the government of Pakistan's NWFP to resign or face terrorist violence expires.

Armed militants of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), stand next to a graffiti which read as
Armed militants of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), stand next to a graffiti which read as "Long Live Tehreek-e-Talban Pakistan" at a camp in a Pakistani tribal district of Mohmand Agency on July 21. The TTP chief Baitullah Mehsud last week asked the provincial government of NWFP to resign in five days or be ready for attacks.

An ultimatum by Baitullah Mehsud to the government of Pakistan's North West Frontier Province to resign or face terrorist violence expires today. With military operations already under way in the district of Hangu, close to the lawless tribal area, and continuing operations in Swat valley and around the provincial capital, Peshawar, it seems that the country is stumbling into an armed confrontation with Mehsud's Taliban in Pakistan movement.

This is despite the government's proclaimed policy of seeking a negotiated settlement with the militants. Pakistan's NWFP, inhabited by the Pashtun people, who are also the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan, risks being set ablaze. Mehsud, angered by sporadic military operations and the capture of one of his deputies, did not spell out what action he would take when he set a five-day deadline at the end of last week for the NWFP administration to quit.

Yesterday, the Pakistani prime minister, Yousaf Raza Gilani, called an emergency meeting in Peshawar with tribal elders from Mehsud's base of South Waziristan, part of the tribal area known as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata). The Taliban are not about to invade NWFP, but it is clear Mehsud has the capability and the will to unleash a savage campaign of suicide bombs and hit-and-run operations.

The Awami National Party (ANP), which leads the administration in NWFP, is about to be tested. A Pashtun nationalist party with pacifist origins, it was out of power for decades before February's elections swept it in. "Now you'll see a different face of the ANP," said Hassan Abbas, a research fellow at Harvard University. "In Pashtun culture, if you receive a threat, you don't back down." But the ANP will find it hard to pursue a military solution against fellow Pashtuns. And any armed response will seem as if they are following a US agenda. Washington has stated that there are "irreconcilable" elements within Pakistan's tribal territory, with whom it is impossible to negotiate.

"We don't want to kill them [the Taliban]; they are our brothers," said Hajji Adeel, senior vice president of the ANP. "If he [Mehsud]) wants to talk to us, we are ready. We want peace." The provincial administration, it seems, would have to be pushed into a position where it had no choice but to hit back or risk losing NWFP. That is exactly the decision that is fast approaching. After today, the Taliban will call a shura - a meeting of leaders - to decide what action to take, according to Maulvi Omar, Mehsud's spokesman. There are reports local Taliban cells already are sizing up targets for attack. The militants also suggested they will go after individual leaders of the ANP.

The ANP had forged a written peace accord in Swat with a local branch of Mehsud's Taliban movement. But the militants have accused the party of not fulfilling the terms of the agreement and violence is still a feature of daily life there, once an idyllic valley where domestic tourists flocked. Similarly, the federal government has been in indirect talks with Mehsud, though a definitive deal has remained elusive.

Saleh Shah, a senator who represents South Waziristan in Pakistan's upper house of parliament, insisted a deal with Mehsud was still possible. But he said outside interference was an obstacle. "America is standing on our heads, not to have an agreement. That's why it has failed," said Mr Shah, who is reported to be close to the Taliban. "But why shouldn't Baitullah Mehsud want a deal? Is he also not human?"

The NWFP government is caught not only in an ideological quandary, but a jurisdictional one, too. Although Mehsud's fire is trained on the provincial government, his stronghold is the tribal territory that lies between NWFP and Afghanistan, which means it comes under the federal administration. Currently, it is only at the margins, in Hangu and also in Swat, which lie in NWFP, that the Taliban come up against the provincial government.

Pakistan's army has shown no appetite for fighting the Taliban, while public opinion is also strongly against a military solution. The federal government appears to have little grasp of the gravity of the situation and certainly no desire for a full-blown assault against the militants, given the political and economic crises that already plague Pakistan. The provincial government certainly understands the stakes but continues to see the issue through the prism of Pashtun brotherhood, which does not allow them to view extremists as their enemy.

So Mehsud's decision to issue an ultimatum plays into the hands of the United States and discards the apparently attractive deal that was on offer to him - the Pakistan state would have left him alone, as long as he stuck to just the Afghan jihad. It is thought that the Afghan Taliban have also urged him not to pick a fight with Pakistan and focus on the war against US forces next door. But such is the ambition and confidence of Mehsud and the Pakistani Taliban that they are only willing to accept a deal that grants them 100 per cent of their demands. Pakistan may be willing to cede the tribal territory to them.

But it is the Taliban's designs on NWFP, and beyond, that will eventually force a reluctant state to confront the menace. Whether the conflict comes now or later, it seems impossible for Pakistan to avoid joining the war against the Taliban. @Email:sshah@thenational.ae