Pakistan Peoples Party supporters demonstrate against militant attacks on health workers. (Agence France-Presse)
ISLAMABAD — Analysts are dismayed the government has accepted a cease-fire from the Pakistani Taliban (TTP) just as the TTP was reeling from Air Force and Army attacks launched in retaliation for the recent attack on a polio vaccination team.
They say it shows the TTP can still dictate the course of events despite a new government security policy designed to tackle internal security threats.
Brian Cloughley, a former Australian defense attaché to Islamabad, says he cannot understand the decision.
“I am at a loss to follow the government’s logic in agreeing to a ceasefire, if only because when rebels propose such a thing it almost always means that they are suffering and want time and space,” he said.
“The public seemed to be firmly on the government’s side about maintaining pressure, but they will wonder what on earth is going on. Perhaps the attack in Islamabad will alter the government’s mind about the risks in accepting a cease-fire proposal. If [Prime Minister] Nawaz Sharif continues to abide by it, however, he is going to be politically isolated,” he said.
The TTP has stressed it was not connected to Monday’s attack on a court complex in Islamabad. That attack was claimed by what, until recently, was the Mohmand Agency chapter of the TTP, and is now called the Ahrarul Hind.
Similarly Haris Khan of the Pakistan Military consortium think tank said the TTP has been hit hard by the Air Force and Army, which has “more or less taken out a lot of their local command and training structures.”
The government should increase the pressure, not decrease it and allow them to regroup, he said.
“They now know that [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] against them is perfect and there is nowhere else to run and hide. ... This is not the time to halt counter attacks, this is the time to finish them off without having boots on the ground,” he said.
Claude Rakisits, honorary associate professor in strategic studies at Australia’s Deakin University, agrees the government should “now implement ruthlessly and relentlessly the military option,” but instead the government is setting a dangerous course.
The government “cannot allow the TTP to set the agenda” he said. “By agreeing to a cease-fire it would simply give the TTP and all their ideological fellow travelers time to either prepare for battle or, more likely, flee North Waziristan for the mountains of Afghanistan.
“From there they will then seep back into the FATA [Federally Administered Tribal Areas] once the military operations against them are over. In any case, given all the lead time the military had given the TTP, I suspect large numbers of fighters have already fled westward.”
The current TTP leader, Mullah Fazlullah, escaped into Afghanistan during an Army operation to retake the Swat valley in 2009.
However, Khan said a resumption of sustained strikes against the TTP can still take out its leadership.
“Fazlullah is on the ISI-CIA (Pak-Afghanistan Coordination cell) active hit list in Pakistan,” and a resumption in drone strikes in the Tribal Areas would likely take him out, he said.
Pakistan also has the ability to target the TTP over the border in Afghanistan, but Khan says this can be complicated.
“There have been a few instances when [Pakistani special forces] have entered Afghanistan and taken out high-value targets, but the distance of infiltration was not more than 15 miles from the Pakistani border because of extraction issues.”
A full-scale ground operation against the TTP is still possible, but Rakisits said this could lead to a more interesting issue.
“The bigger strategic question is, of course, what would such an operation mean for the government’s relationship with the Haqqani network and other ‘good’ Taliban which have not targeted government forces in the past’?”
Rakisits said this situation could also be changing.
“According to [National Security and Foreign Affairs Adviser] Sartaj Aziz, who was in Washington a few weeks ago, a military operation in North Waziristan and elsewhere in FATA would go after all militants” he said.
“If this is true, this would be a very big policy shift from the previous governments. Perhaps the government and the military have finally come to the realization that supporting the Taliban and all like-minded terrorists was not such a good idea after all — one only needs to count the 50,000 dead Pakistanis civilians to confirm it,” Rakisits added.
There are obvious risks, however.
“Of course, if there is a serious and sustained military operation against the TTP et al, one can expect massive retaliation on the part of the terrorists.”
However, “the government is on safe policy ground by opting for the military option.”
“The people of Pakistan are fed up with these attacks on civilians. And the latest attack in the heart of Islamabad should put the final nail into the negotiation coffin so that it can be buried once and for all,” he said. ■