OUR armed forces are engaged in fierce battles in the Khyber and Kurram agencies and on a somewhat smaller scale in the other tribal agencies to re-establish the writ of the state.
It is an uphill task. The Khyber Agency operation was launched several weeks ago and it is only now that the Inter-Services Public Relations can claim that a substantial area has been cleared of militants. In their operations the armed forces have used artillery and air attacks with F-16s and helicopter gunships. One can assume that no matter how carefully these weapons have been used and no matter how many civilians have fled the conflict area, there has been substantial collateral damage. In the meanwhile, havoc continues to be wreaked in the settled districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
It is natural for the new government to believe that this seemingly unending conflict will only add to the over 40,000 persons who have already been killed, increase the number of internally displaced persons and jeopardise plans for an economy recovery.
A desire to seek a negotiated settlement is therefore understandable. But is it possible? Would a better course be to abandon the ambivalence of the past, recognise that no elusive external gain outweighs the costs that the support of extremist groups brings to our internal security situation and set about assuring the multitude of anti-Taliban forces in the region that they can safely join the government in fighting and eliminating the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and its allies?
The armed forces, possibly with the collaboration of the civil administration, are seeking the assistance of local anti-TTP forces to break the hold the insurgents have established in Khyber, Kurram and other tribal areas. How successful and durable the results of these efforts will be will depend on the degree of credibility the locals attach to the determination of the new government to pursue this present course. They may take heart from President Zardari’s address to parliament in which he said, presumably with the approval of the new government, “Militancy, extremism and terrorism pose the greatest threat to our national security … We are ready to make peace with those willing to give up violence, but should be ready to use force against those who challenge the writ of the state.” The other statements that are being made by responsible officials about the willingness of the new government to find ways and means to woo the TTP into entering into talks will, however, give them pause.
A front of various groups including the Afghan Taliban and anti-TTP forces in Afghanistan’s Kunar province — the source of an enormous lumber and narcotics smuggling network — are massing to confront the TTP. Ehsanullah Ehsan, the TTP spokesman, confirmed with this newspaper’s correspondent that such an attack was anticipated and attributed it to an old enmity with the Ansar-ul Islam and other militant groups.
What was most interesting, however, was Ehsan’s statement to another newspaper that he hoped the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” would realise the conspiracy and not join these rival groups. He apparently found nothing wrong in stating as a Pakistani that “We have shown allegiance to the Islamic Emirate and accept their leadership and if they have any complaint we are ready to satisfy them”. When an authoritative spokesman for the TTP acknowledges pledging allegiance to the “Islamic Emirate” it means that when the Taliban become dominant in the areas of Afghanistan bordering Pakistan, after the Nato withdrawal, the TTP will join them in establishing the writ of the “Islamic Emirate” in Pakistan’s tribal areas and make these areas the “strategic depth” of the “Islamic Emirate” (as they had been during the period of Taliban rule in Afghanistan).
Is this the end result we want from the negotiations with the TTP? Is there any other end that can be reasonably expected?
Even while we debate this issue we must therefore seek a weakening of the TTP. In Kunar, the fight is for control of the extremely lucrative lumber and narcotics trade rather than any ideological conflict. The Afghan Taliban may join the anti-TTP front to protect their economic interests. Our authorities must encourage such moves to weaken the TTP but also to stop the use of this area by Mullah Fazlullah and his cohorts to attack Pakistan. One issue, which bedevils Pak-Afghan relations and impedes Afghan reconciliation, is the Pakistani military’s response to Fazlullah’s attacks and the fuel this provides for anti-Pakistan forces in Afghanistan.
The new government’s opposition to drone strikes has been articulated at the highest level. Yet the two strikes carried out after our elections have been aimed at TTP leaders, albeit leaders who were also attacking or planning to attack forces in Afghanistan, and by all accounts have caused minimal collateral damage. The violation of our sovereignty is clear, but so is the fact that we exercise no sovereignty in the affected areas and cannot prevent the use of this area by insurgents for attacking Afghan territory — rendering meaningless President Zardari’s reiteration in parliament of the Pakistani pledge to not allow the use of its territory for attacks on other countries.
The Americans need our cooperation to effect a safe and orderly withdrawal. The attack on Nato containers on Monday shows this requires quelling insurgent forces, particularly in Khyber Agency. The US may even stop drone attacks to secure such cooperation for as long as the transit routes are needed and are safe. But is this to our advantage? Do these attacks strengthen or weaken Pakistan’s struggle against the internal insurgency and the ever-enlarging extremist threat? Can this perhaps jeopardise future relations with the world’s sole, albeit bruised, super-power?
A dispassionate analysis, unaffected by the public mood created by unwise propaganda, needs to be made. Equally or perhaps more importantly we also need to work out ways to promote reconciliation in Afghanistan, on which more in my next article.
The writer is a former foreign secretary.