What next in South Waziristan?
What next in South Waziristan?
By Ismail Khan
THE wheel has come full circle in South Waziristan. It has been a little over three and a half years since the launch of the military operation in areas dominated by the Mehsud tribe after the government had used similar tactics to force tribal militants to submit to state authority and expel foreign militants.
The three-pronged operation is a repeat of a similar exercise that led the military into the Mehsud territory between March and July of 2004. The military did prevail after encountering stiff resistance but what it had won through hard battle it lost through negotiations in Sararogha in February, 2005. A senior government official at the time had asked: "Whose compulsion is it to strike a deal, ours or the militants?"
Predictably, the agreement collapsed sooner than expected and the militants resumed attacks on security forces, leading to the capture of 242 soldiers last August. Grudgingly, the government agreed to a prisoners' swap, freeing 24 militants, some of them convicted of being alleged suicide bombers.
In the words of a senior military officer: "This was a bitter pill that we had to swallow."
For almost four years since the ill-fated Shakai agreement, Pakistan's policy in Fata, in the words of a former senior American official, has been on "auto pilot".
Little wonder then that the military finds itself sucked into another operation in South Waziristan.
The government has imposed a debilitating economic blockade on the Mehsud tribe and very little is coming out of the embattled zone in terms of information.
It has caused the displacement of a large number of Mehsud tribesmen, including women and children, who had to walk on foot for miles to reach the relative safety of Tank and Dera Ismail Khan.
To ensure unity of command, the political administration has deliberately been kept outside the loop.
Those familiar with the military's operational strategy to "box in" Baitullah Mehsud believed that it was going well and according to plan.
Assessment by government agencies that the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TIP) formed in December has failed to present itself as a single platform of militant groups operating in the tribal region and the settled district also helped reshape the government's strategy to deal with the Mehsud militant commander.
Baitullah, the amir of the Pakistani Taliban, told Al-Jazeera that the TIP had been set up to counter the government's attempts to divide militant groups. He said the TIP would coordinate all activities and respond collectively, be it negotiations with the government or operations.
However, government officials say this does not seem to be the case. Militants in Ahmadzai Wazir in South Waziristan, widely seen as pro-government, are staying neutral. In fact, they have pushed back attempts by pro-Baitullah militants from their own Ahmadzai Wazir clansmen to return to the Wazir area and use it as a fall-back position.
In North Waziristan's regional headquarters of Miramshah, militant commander Hafiz Gul Bahadar is in direct contact with the government and has extended the ceasefire till February 17. He has avoided to be drawn into the conflict, despite last week's missile attack in Mirali that reportedly killed Abu Laith Al-Libbi, though the groups operating in the area are not under his control.
In Bajaur, surprisingly, militants loyal to Maulana Faqir Mohammad, a senior figure second only to Baitullah, are also keeping their cool and have so far refrained from escalating the fighting.
But the announcement by a spokesman for Mr Mehsud declaring ceasefire and acknowledging that the decision has been taken in view of the government's flexibility has spawned new questions.
Denials notwithstanding, there are credible reports that talks did take place in Razmak, North Waziristan, last week. What transpired and what was offered by both sides to lead to the cessation of hostilities is not known.
But it has caused quite a bit of confusion. The military insists that the halt in operation is the result of harsh weather conditions and it had nothing to do with the 'unilateral' ceasefire by militants.
Whatever may be the reason for the ceasefire, it would undoubtedly bring some relief to the government and political parties which are now only days away from the February 18 elections.
But one key question remains: What happens next? Negotiations are certainly desirable but it will not shoo away the cat of militancy that is now prowling not just in the tribal regions but also in parts of the NWFP. Clearly, the government still does not appear to have an exit plan.
While the military operation may be important in enabling the government to talk from a position of strength rather than the hitherto weak position, perhaps more important is how it conducts the negotiations and what plan it has to strengthen its writ over the largely-lawless tribal regions in the medium- to long-term in the post-military operation scenario.
In the words of a senior official: "Instead of waiting for the militants to open up another front, the government needs to open its own front in a positive manner by ensuring quick and cheap justice, better social service delivery and better security."
This will happen only if the federal government allows for the much-needed structural changes in the administrative system.
Describing the present administrative system in the NWFP and Fata as "weak, demoralised and despondent", Governor NWFP Owais Ahmad Ghani warned last week that the government system in settled districts and the political system in tribal regions were "heading towards a state of collapse".
Admittedly, the ceasefire will bring immediate peace to the restive tribal region and areas where Mehsud has influence but how long does this new ceasefire last, given past suspicions and frequent breakdown of talks, remains to be seen.
The apprehension is that unless the government comes up with a strategy on how to deal with the situation it will run the risk of getting sucked into another military operation in the tribal areas and at a much bigger cost.
Al-Qaeda, Taliban chiefs hiding in Pakistan: US official.
"There is no question that the iconic leaders of Al-Qaeda -- (Ayman al-) Zawahiri, bin Laden ... are in the tribal areas of Pakistan," the official said at a media briefing.
"We believe that the Taliban's shura (consultation) council leaders led by Mullah Omar reside in Quetta in Pakistan," he said, referring to the capital of rugged Baluchistan province bordering Afghanistan.
The sanctuaries were not only helping Taliban fight the insurgency against Afghan President Hamid Karzai's administration, which is backed by US and NATO troops, but also posing a threat to Pakistan and beyond central Asia, the official said.
Mr Mehsud is in a very difficult spot, they didn't complain or attack when Libi was killed last week.
The politics behind the cease fire is Mr Mehsud, can call "shenanigans" if attacked as they declared a unilateral cease fire.
And the Military would be viewed as the bad guys by the population, for attacking during a cease fire.
It also allows the Takiban to bring in other taliban to vote in the Paki elections, election fraud.
Mr Mehsud is also looking for a way out which the cease fire may give him.
Gerald & Bill
Macro view of Pashtoon/Taliban situation