Spoilers in the game

Published March 4, 2014
— File photo
— File photo

REMEMBER the attack on the Peshawar district courts on March 18, 2013? Two suicide bombers had entered the district courts, from the back, firing indiscriminately and lobbing hand-grenades.

Fast forward to March 3, 2014. A couple of suicide bombers entered the district courts in Islamabad, police say, from the back of the premises, shooting and throwing hand-grenades.

The attacks were strikingly similar in method, only this time the intelligence and security officials aren’t really sure who or which group of the myriad of Pakistani militants are behind it. The Peshawar district courts attack was attributed to the outlawed Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan’s Tariq Geedar; this time it is Ahrarul Hind — a relatively new entrant — which has claimed responsibility for the Islamabad bombing.

Ahrar is a recent phenomenon. It had come under the spotlight on Feb 9 when it declared it would not accept any peace agreement short of complete enforcement of Sharia. On Feb 14, the group publicly rebuked “those who hope that peace would come to Pakistan through an agreement or ceasefire with the Taliban without the enforcement of Sharia. “That would be ridiculous,” its spokesman Asad Mansoor had said in his first statement.

Founded by brothers from Hizro, Attock district in Punjab, the attack by Ahrar in Islamabad and the denial by the TTP spokesman, Shahidullah Shahid, is a grim reminder of just how complex the Pakistani militant scene is.

The attack came within hours of a roadside bombing in Landi Kotal, Khyber tribal region, which targeted a Frontier Corps vehicle and that intelligence officials believe is the handiwork of the TTP’s Mohmand chapter. It has once again prompted calls from those advocating talks for segregating the amenable and reconcilable militants from those bent upon spilling blood and wreaking havoc.

There are said to be 43 Pakistani militant groups operating in North Waziristan alone. Counted together with groups operating in other tribal agencies and settled districts of the country, the total number of militant organisations in Pakistan comes roughly to 54. Foreign militant groups are said to be 12 in number. Most of the groups are operating under the TTP umbrella. Some are independent but officials believe the groups have ideological, tactical and logistical similarities.

Of the 54 groups, the government has peace agreements with two groups — the Maulvi Nazir group in Wana, South Waziristan, and Hafiz Gul Bahadar’s group in Miramshah, North Waziristan, which, depending how one interprets it, are holding. Other than them, there are two more groups which the government believes can be reconciled — Khan Said alias Sajna (Waliur Rehman group) and Asmatullah Moawya (Punjabi group). Together, their total fighting strength, according to official estimates, should come to 1,300.

Then there are four other Punjabi Taliban groups, which officials believe, could be neutral, and are waiting to see how the cookie crumbles.

For the foreign militant groups, a peace agreement (like the deals) still holding, which can somehow ensure their continued stay in the region would be a better option than a military operation which would uproot them along with thousands of others. Their survival thus would hinge largely on a loose peace agreement. North Waziristan is their last stand.

But while most of these groups have taken sanctuary in the volatile tribal region, there are two other groups whose behaviour would also have an impact on any policy formulation. Miramshah is home to Hafiz Gul Bahadar and the Haqqani Network. So far, officials believe that both groups are neutral.

Gul Bahadar has a vested interest in talks and against an escalation in hostilities that could threaten ‘peace’ in his own region. The Haqqani Network would not want action that could, even temporarily, disturb their operations in Afghanistan. The TTP has served as their rearguard in Pakistan. But if there is action, it could easily slip across the border where officials claim they have a large swathe of territory available to operate from.

So even if the TTP is engaged in talks and their claim of no involvement in the recent bombings are taken at face value, arguably there are still a number of groups which can work as spoilers, though there is scepticism within officialdom over the umbrella group’s intentions and sincerity.

So far the TTP has played its cards intelligently; some analysts say it is politically savvier than those at the helm, crafting a course of action that the government has no option but to follow. It has stalled any impending military operation and put the hawks and the government on the defensive.

The scenario is so complex, complicated and confusing that there are many within officialdom who now wonder if there is any clarity and vision at the top.

Like the Guinness records being set in Lahore, the false starts of the military operation, the on-again, off-again peace talks, the attacks and the number of terminologies describing the strikes — from targeted to surgical to precision to retaliatory — may also become a record of sorts. The only difference is that the Guinness records are being celebrated in Lahore, while the wave of attacks in the rest of the country is cause for mourning.

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