Internally displaced Pakistani civilians fleemilitary operations against Taliban militants in North Waziristan Jan. 21. (Agence France-Presse)
ISLAMABAD — The Pakistan Air Force yesterday pounded suspected Pakistan Taliban (TTP) targets in the Tribal Areas adjoining the Afghan-Pakistan border in retaliation for two recent suicide bombings that killed dozens of military personnel. The bombings have led to speculation this could herald the start of a long-anticipated Taliban campaign, and call into question how far the government will allow the military to respond.
Former Australian defense attache to Islamabad, Brian Cloughley, said this may signal the start of a campaign of attacks by the TTP, partly in revenge for the death of their former leader, Hakimullah Mehsud. He was killed by a US drone strike in November.
“It certainly seems that these bombings are the beginning of a campaign, instigated by the recently returned Maulana Fazlullah, who is trying to cement his position as undisputed leader of the TTP,” he said.
After a long lull in serious attacks in Rawalpindi, Monday saw a deadly suicide attack on a combined Police/Army check-post not far from the Army’s General Headquarters. It killed 13 people, six of them soldiers with the rest passing schoolchildren and other civilians. Many more were injured.
Sunday saw an attack on a military convoy in Bannu in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province bordering Afghanistan that killed 20 and injured more than 30.
Both attacks were claimed by the TTP, and today raids were carried out across Rawalpindi in which 48 people were arrested in suspicion of being connected to Monday’s attack.
The Pakistan Air Force meanwhile bombed suspected TTP hideouts around the town of Mir Ali in the militant hotbed of North Waziristan in the Tribal Areas, killing over 24 people.
Whether the attacks will trigger a full offensive against the TTP remains unclear, however, as the government still appears wedded to negotiations although the TTP shows no indication of accepting talks.
Cloughley described Fazlullah as “a psychotic savage whose mayhem and murder in Swat in 2007-2009 seem to have been forgotten by many people in Islamabad.”
A collective short memory about Fazlullah may be a problem, but analysts are convinced of the needed response.
“The only thing that can be done about the TTP is to eradicate Fazlullah and as many of his hard core supporters as possible,” says Cloughley.
Adding, “He does not want to talk peace, because he is incapable of living in peace — and he thinks he can win. It is up to [Prime Minister] Nawaz Sharif to prove him wrong, and the only way to do this, alas, is by sheer force.”
And the military is aware of this, says Cloughley.
“The Army remembers only too well that in Swat, when it went in to defeat Fazlullah and his fanatics, it took a long time and involved over a million people being forced from their homes.”
Though the military is convinced, Salma Malik, assistant professor at Quaid-e-Azam University’s Department of Defence and Strategic Studies in Islamabad, is unsure the government will order a full-scale operation.
“The security forces have long been asking for a full nod from the political decision-makers to undertake a big crushing action against the TTP, yet despite the mounting number of civil-military fatalities, I doubt the federal as well as provincial [Khyber Pakhtunkhwa] governments plan going for a zero tolerance, iron-fisted reply, which is the only means of tackling the menace,” she said.
The reason for this, beyond a false belief in negotiations, is clear, said Malik.
“It’s not only a divided house, but still there exists a strong empathy factor combined with those who strongly feel that this is still not our war,” she said.
As long as this remains the case, she does not think there will be a proper response.
“Unless there is a combined, coordinated and well synced inter-agency response that has both civil and military actors working in tandem, nothing will be possible.”
Even the Air Force has only delivered a token response.
Analyst Usman Shabbir of the Pakistan Military Consortium think tank says the raids are “basically a small-scale punishment.”
He highlights that a truly effective response is not purely military.
“To be effective against the TTP, the first thing that needs to be done is the complete overhaul of our investigation [law enforcement/prosecution] and judicial systems so that whoever is caught, does get punished,” he said.
At present, suspects can be released for what judges decide is a lack of evidence or because of a faulty investigation in a criminal judicial system that largely relies on confessions. Coupled with an obvious fear some judges have displayed in sentencing captured Taliban militants, the criminal justice system provides little value in tackling the TTP.
These problems aside, Shabbir does not ignore the need for a military option.
“A full-scale military operation like the one carried out in Swat is also needed to deny the TTP the foothold it has in North Waziristan,” he said. ■