Pakistan Doubles Down Against the Taliban

The letter was simple and direct. "To the brave and honorable people of the Mehsud tribe," it started, in both Urdu and Pashtu, the two languages of Pakistan's troubled tribal areas along the border with Afghanistan. "The operation [by the Pakistan army] is not meant to target the valiant and patriotic Mehsud tribes but [is] aimed at ridding them of the elements who have destroyed peace in the region." Dropped from helicopters above the mountain scrubland of South Waziristan the day before 28,000 Pakistani troops went in to wrest control of a militant stronghold, the letter was signed by General Ashfaq Kayani, chief of the Pakistani military. To drive home the point that Pakistan's most powerful man was speaking directly to a people largely ignored by the country's laws and politics, his photograph, flanked by the Pakistani flag and the crossed-swords insignia of the military, was splashed across the top of the note.

The unprecedented letter, along with an army operation in a part of the country that has seen little of the central government since Pakistan's birth in 1947, signals an extraordinary about-face for the nation's military establishment. For decades, Pakistan's armed forces have been obsessed with India, its foe in four wars, rather than the enemy within. But is the change of heart enough to stop Pakistan's endless death spiral toward becoming a nuclear-armed failed state?

No general wants to take war to his own people. Kayani was forced to do so by a surge of violence radiating from the South Waziristan headquarters of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), a group of several militant organizations seething with grievances against the state and influenced in part by al-Qaeda. The 10,000-strong TTP, which was led by Baitullah Mehsud until he was killed by a U.S. drone in August, is largely made up of members of his Mehsud tribe, though an increasing number of militants from the Pakistani heartland of Punjab, along with an estimated 1,500 Uzbek and Arab fighters, have joined the force. Since Mehsud's deputy, Hakimullah Mehsud, assumed leadership in August, there has been an escalation of violence throughout the country that has seen dozens of suicide-bomb attacks, lethal raids on security installations — including the army headquarters — and more than 200 deaths.

The attacks, which have targeted an Islamic university, shopping centers and police academies, have done the seemingly impossible: turned Pakistani public opinion against militants who had formerly been considered holy warriors fighting international forces in Afghanistan. That has allowed the army to go in with popular support. "This operation is not against an area or a tribe," says military spokesman Major General Athar Abbas. "The objective is to regain the space lost last year when Baitullah Mehsud declared war on the state of Pakistan."

An Ideal Place for Jihad
Truthfully, Pakistan never had that space to begin with. South Waziristan is part of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), which are governed by political officers rather than elected officials. The people of FATA have few constitutionally protected rights and privileges. Central government's presence is minimal; so is development. It is the ideal place for a militant group seeking to set up an Islamic caliphate from which to launch a global jihad.

Three times, the army has gone into South Waziristan, only to be forced into ignoble retreat. But Kayani, 57, seems determined to win this time. He is leading his army into a war that is both guerrilla in nature — the militants know the terrain and have local support — and conventional in its goals. "For the military, the goal is limited: to degrade and destroy these elements and not let them use South Waziristan as a sanctuary from which to spread terrorism in the rest of Pakistan," says Rifaat Hussain, of Islamabad's Quaid-i-Azam University. "But for the TTP, it is a battle for survival. If they lose, the whole movement is finished."
It is not the first time Kayani has led an operation against militants. This summer he fought an offshoot of the TTP in the Swat Valley, where a failed peace accord had encouraged the local Taliban to attempt a takeover of an entire district. That experience proved the turning point for the army. Intelligence operatives revealed the extensive links between the Swat militants and those fighting for Baitullah Mehsud, fueling fears of a nationwide insurgency. The army "realized that the gains they had made in Swat would not be sustainable unless and until they go after these guys in South Waziristan," says Hussain. "The government does not want to be in the position where these guys have made themselves so strong that the Taliban take root in Punjab, because then the game is up."

For all its intentions to root out insurgency, the military has been forced to make risky deals. Most civilians have fled the area of fighting in South Waziristan, enabling the army to use extensive airpower against militants without fear of collateral damage. But there are only 28,000 ground troops in an area the size of Rhode Island, fighting a well-fortified enemy that has bunkers, ammunition depots, land mines and an extensive network of caves. To prevent TTP fighters from escaping over the border to Afghanistan, the army has reached out to what it perceives to be the lesser evil — militant groups that may have fought the government in the past but that detest the TTP more.
As recently as February, the leader of one such group, Maulvi Nazir of the Ahmedzai Wazir tribe, joined forces with Baitullah Mehsud and declared war on Islamabad, Kabul and Washington. The alliance ended with Mehsud's death, and Nazir resumed his tribe's long rivalry with the Mehsuds. Both Nazir and Hafiz Gul Bahadur, another local militant, have entered into nonaggression pacts with the army and have been promised money and reconstruction projects in exchange for their neutrality. The Haqqani network, led by former Afghan warlord Jalaluddin Haqqani — one of the U.S.'s most-wanted militants, whose network has concentrated its efforts on attacking NATO forces in Afghanistan — is also expected to remain passive throughout the operation, military officials tell TIME. Army spokesman Abbas defends these agreements. "If you have to defeat the main serpent, would you like to isolate that from the others or deal with them all at once?" he asks. Hussain thinks the tactic makes sense in the short term but worries that in time, the groups that are neutral now may just become a new threat. Baitullah Mehsud, he points out, was once an ally of the Pakistani military.

The Pakistani army's relationship with its lesser-evil militants is unlikely to please the U.S. These are groups that have trained their guns principally on U.S. and NATO troops across the border in Afghanistan and have assisted Afghan Taliban who have established bases on the Pakistani side of the border. But Shuja Nawaz, director of the Atlantic Council's South Asia Center, says the army is not strong enough to take on the Afghan Taliban based in Pakistan and their friends in the tribal regions. The army, he says, doesn't have "the numbers or the equipment to do that."
It does, actually; it's just that most of Pakistan's army is still based far from its western border with Afghanistan, along its eastern frontier with India. The military establishment has belatedly recognized the threat posed by internal militants, but it is difficult to overestimate Pakistan's continuing paranoia about India. Many commanders serving today cut their teeth during wars with India and remain convinced that the country is bent on destabilizing Pakistan and taking back all the disputed territory of Kashmir. That is why analysts like Nawaz say the only real solution to Pakistan's militancy is a regional détente with India. That, he says, would allow "Pakistan to divert resources — not just troops but monetary resources — to the civil sector for better governance."
Maybe. On the other hand, Pakistan's civilian officials have hardly done much to improve lives when they have had the chance. It was governmental neglect that enabled militants to establish a foothold in the tribal areas in the first place. Unless the government can follow the army's offensive with development, infrastructure, jobs and justice, extremist groups will always thrive in the tribal areas. Taking the battle to the militants in South Waziristan, says Lieut. General Ali Muhammad Jan Aurakzai, the former governor of Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province, "is a requirement, but not a solution — a first field dressing to a battle wound." The solution, as is usually the case in regions that breed insurgencies — and not just in Pakistan — is better governance. No sign of that yet.

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