Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Nasim Zehra: Zardari, Army, and Locals in the Fata Operations

The Zardari trip and the tribal areas
By Nasim Zehra, The News, October 01, 2008


"In New York what came through clearly was that the Zardari-Gaillani government will pursue the same policy objectives as of general Musharraf's government with a changed approach. Zardari seems to have been tutored to not say too much publicly to displease the Americans.

No direct mention of US attacks and the consequent death of Pakistani civilians. No mention of Pakistan will itself take care of its internal state institutions, no mention of the other side of terrorism, that of global injustice. Maybe the Zardari regime has opted to say less to displease the Americans to get IOUs from the Americans in exchange for silence and cash them for Pakistan's well being at the Friends of Pakistan Group. May not necessarily work. National confidence may take a hit at home with less than clearly yet diplomatically articulated Pakistani concerns. At no cost can Pakistan's security be compromised, the president could have said.

The Zardari trip has coincided with important and perhaps some hopeful developments in the tribal areas. On the ground a significant development in some of the tribal areas seems to be a widening divide between the militants and some of the key local tribesmen. In Bajaur, where a renewed air and ground offensive against the foreign and local militants is underway, this divide is particularly obvious. By all accounts this offensive appears to have the backing of the locals.

For example the Salarzai tribe, one of the five main tribes of Bajaur, claims to have 4000 armed fighters under its control. It is now aligned with the army fighting to Bajaur-based militants whereas previously like other tribes the Salarzai was previously supportive of the militants.

The Bajaur Operation, conducted on the military's recommendation, has the backing of the civilian government. At this juncture there is convergence between Pakistan's civil-military leadership on the strategy in the tribal areas. It is a policy based largely on the military's readout of the ground situation. The increased US pressure including drone attacks, ground attacks and attempted air-attacks have also contributed to the Pakistani civil-military leadership's decision to opt for the latest round of operations in the tribal areas especially in Bajaur.

Earlier incessant reports over the last one year of heavy militant activities in Bajaur with its tentacles spread in the region over the last one year especially were generally treated with a velvet glove.

Now its different and senior security officials themselves acknowledge that armed militants are moving into Pakistan from the Afghan areas bordering Bajaur. They complain that these heavily armed militants, traveling often from Central Asia, have undermined the security and peace in Bajaur with a domino effect in the other tribal areas.

Pakistani officials now complain that Afghanistan and the ISAF forces need to 'do more' to control the influx into Pakistan. Seemingly its tables turned on the 'do more' mantra. The world will now pay attention to Pakistan's complaint, given that supported by the locals its own forces are engaged in an ongoing counter-insurgency battle with the foreign and local armed militants.

Meanwhile in Swat too the military Operation, which had petered out beginning of this year has again gone into high gear. Earlier the ANP government, like its predecessor the MMA government had opted for a dialogue-first strategy in Swat. As a political force and one too directly exposed to the militant threat in Swat the ANP was bound to take the political route. In fact the ANP Chief Minister publicly in televised interviews called for dialogue with all militant leaders including Baitullah Massoud fighting in the tribal areas as well.

The military had then argued privately against political engagement questioning how those undermining the writ of the State could actually be expected through these agreements uphold the writ of the State.

Others familiar with the Swat situation privately maintained the Swat agreement was between "a prey and predator" it would never work.

Eight months later the ANP now appears to have concluded that a greater use of force to tackle the problem is unavoidable.

In Swat the situation is far more complicated with the army involved in a protracted battle with the militants with minimal support of the local residents of Swat. Unlike in the tribal areas the local population of the settled district of Swat are not natural fighters hence they are largely caught as victims in the cross-fire between Pakistan's forces and the local and foreign militants.

In Pakistan the battle for the return of security, of the writ of the State and indeed of the local displaced population is underway. This phase appears to be different from the past insofar as the rising of the local population in some of the tribal areas including Bajaur, parts of the Khyber Agency etc demonstrates that the locals are willing to take the government's attempt to use force to tackle the hard core militants. Equally it conveys that all the militants do not enjoy public support.

From New York to Bajaur the government of Pakistan is attempting to pull the country back on track. Begin to work towards re-establishing the writ of the State, strengthen the State and deal with the acute internal security and economic crisis. But this Herculean task requires competence of personnel, genuine leadership that can pull together political consensus too.

Does Pakistan's new strongman have it in him?"

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