Taliban’s ‘Smart’ Strategy in Pakistan
The beginning of April saw the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) holding its largest summit in the Romanian capital of Bucharest. This was also hailed as one of the most successful, given widespread consensus on focusing on the spring operations in Afghanistan. Much as the United States tried to obtain greater commitment of troops to the ground battles in Kandahar and Helmand, it was only the French led by Nicholas Sarkozy, Poland seeking a lead role in Central Europe keeping with the power configuration in the area and states as Czech Republic were willing to add boots on the ground. Finally it was left to the United States to promise increased deployment in 2009, after sending over 2000 marines to Southern Afghanistan.
A Year is likely to be a long period in the guerrilla war in Afghanistan which claimed between 6000-8000 lives in 2007. The Taliban, NATO's principal foe in Afghanistan however was forging a, 'smart' strategy in conjunction with old ally, Al Qaeda and the Tehreek e Taliban, Pakistan (TTP).
These terrorist groups were facing the heat of combined military operations in Pakistan and Afghanistan for the past eight months or so after the Lal Masjid episode in June 2007. The Swat Valley over which Mullah Fazlullah held sway was reclaimed by the army with the terrorists melting away in the hills. Despite the large number of suicide attacks launched including the most fateful one on Benazir Bhutto, the Taliban and the Al Qaeda was on the retreat at least in Afghanistan. This was acknowledged by US officials on more than one occasion.
The US 82nd Airborne Division having finished its tour of duty was quick to point out the successes achieved in Eastern Afghanistan, its principal deployment area. This would not have been possible without active suppression of militancy in the North West Frontier Province and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan. The portends were thus ominous for the Taliban and sustained operations during the spring-summer 2008 would have severely constrained its capacity, particularly when the local population seems to be disenchanted with violence.
More over the central leadership of the Al Qaeda which has a safe sanctuary on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border would have been critically impacted. With heavy troop presence in these areas on both sides of the Durand Line, their survival would have been difficult.
Yet the Al Qaeda, TTP and Afghan Taliban have a much more coordinated strategy than their counterpart, the governments in Afghanistan and Pakistan and the International Security Assistance Force and NATO. They quickly seized the opportunity of the turn of the political tide in Pakistan when the new government in Islamabad and particularly in Peshawar, under the Pakistan People's Party and the Awami National Party respectively, wanting to prove its people friendly policies decided to adopt a, 'comprehensive approach'. This entailed a combination of military, political and development initiatives to drive away the root causes of militancy as well as deny infra structure and constrict operational space for the terrorists.
What has emerged however is a policy of appeasement of the terrorist groups, who seem to have deftly reciprocated by avoiding any suicide attacks for a five week period after February, till the lull was broken a couple of days back in Mardan, the home constituency of the Chief Minister of the ruling Awami National Party in Peshawar.
During this period, we are told that a 15 point agreement is being worked out with of all the persons, Baitullah Mehsud of the TTP who is alleged to have ordered assassination of Benazir Bhutto. The rough contours of this Deal indicate that the military will pull out of the tribal areas of South Waziristan and the TTP will ensure that it would keep peace as well as deny sanctuaries to foreign elements, including Taliban operating in Afghanistan.
There are many missing links to this agreement, the principle ones being of restricting access to fighters operating in Afghanistan for rest and recuperation in Waziristan in Pakistan, an agreement that the TTP will not operate in Afghanistan and turn away foreign fighters an euphemism for the Al Qaeda.
What mechanisms if any will be put into place for monitoring these and other clauses of the Agreement are not known so far. For unless these are worked out the present peace agreement will flounder as many before it, be it in South Waziristan in 2005 or the North in September 2006, both of which provided unhindered access to the miscreants operating in Afghanistan against NATO forces.
On the face of it, the Al Qaeda and the Taliban seem to have obtained sizeable concessions from the new Pakistan government, the adverse impact of which is likely to be seen in the days ahead in Afghanistan. Thus Kabul has been most unhappy with these machinations of the Pakistan government and has made it amply clear that this would increase violence in the Year ahead. The Taliban's 'smart strategy' thus has ensured that it has obtained the freedom to operate as well as secured the lair for the Al Qaeda command.
The Pakistan government's urge to try something different from the previous regime is appreciated, but unless there are iron clad guarantees that the Taliban would stand by its part of the Deal, the death toll in Afghanistan is likely to rise in the year ahead. As it appears, the cycle of Deal-Violence-Deal-Violence in Pakistan seems to be going on interminably. Hopefully this time around we should expect that past experience would have led the Government to pin the TTP down to its promises.
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Col. Rahul K. Bhonsle
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