THE US drones were better weapons to use against militants as compared to Pakistan Air Force jets, believes Rustam Shah Mohmand, a Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf-appointed member of the government committee to negotiate with the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).

“Drones are more precise in targeting militants than the jets the air force is using, which cause heavy collateral damage,” he told Dawn. “The government should have formed a strategy in collaboration with the US to carry out strikes using drones.”

Last year, the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) organised sit-ins over several months to force the US government to bring drone strikes to an end, and the Obama administration practically halted these operations.

However, Mr Mohmand, whom PTI chief Imran Khan declared the party’s point man on the TTP and militancy, now thinks Pakistan should have utilised the accuracy of drones.

“Pakistan should have had acquired drones from the US and operated them for the North Waziristan strikes, or it should have had collaborated with the US over authentic information about ground targets to reduce collateral damage,” he said.

The former bureaucrat who has served as Pakistan’s ambassador to Afghanistan, federal interior secretary, and political agent in Khyber and South Waziristan Agencies added that collateral damage caused by PAF jets in North Waziristan has forced several families to migrate to Afghanistan.

“Many civilians have been killed in the recent air strikes,” he commented. “Many markets, bazaars, shops and houses have been destroyed. This has forced hundreds of families to migrate to the Afghanistan province of Khost despite the fact that American forces bombard those areas. They are so frustrated that they prefer Khost over Bannu despite the unrest in Afghanistan.”

North Waziristan Agency is now the focus of the government given that most of the militants have reportedly moved here from South Waziristan.

“All of the leadership is in North Waziristan,” said Mr Mohmand. “Almost 80 per cent of the Mehsud tribes have left South Waziristan.”

Peace talks

In Mr Mohmand’s view, the strikes will also have an impact on peace talks with the TTP.

“As far as the peace talks are concerned, the Mohmand and Bajaur factions of the TTP have already announced that negotiations can’t go ahead in the shadow of the air strikes,” he explained. “The North Waziristan militants are on the run and are involved in infighting so they are unable to decide anything.”

According to Mr Mohmand, “contact was made between Maulana Yousaf Shah and Qari Shakeel-ur-Rehman of the TTP shura two weeks ago. The Taliban conveyed the message that they are waiting for a second meeting with the government committee but then the air strikes spoiled the environment. We are now unaware about the Taliban’s mood, but I think that the government has to go back to talks even if it is after two months.”

However, Mr Mohmand believes there were other reasons, too, that held back the peace process.

“There was a lukewarm response from both sides,” he explained. “The government should have released at least eight to ten non-combatant prisoners to help the negotiators convince the TTP to release Professor Ajmal Khan, the sons of Salmaan Taseer and Yousaf Raza Gilani, and several other people kidnapped by them. But this never happened. Then, certain TTP leaders think that they won’t be getting amnesty, so the process could not work.”

According to Mr Mohmand, “the militants asked for a safe place to hold talks with the government, in the Shaktoi area of South Waziristan, because of the lower presence of the army there and because they would have been able to sneak back into North Waziristan in case of an attack by the Americans. But the government refused to meet that demand, too.”

Nevertheless, he says, “I believe that talks are the only way forward.”

At the same time, he believes that the TTP is losing its strength.

“They have differences and clashes among themselves,” he explained. “Then, there is the dearth of resources and volunteers, while the fighters are fatigued. The local population wants peace, so I don’t think they can continue longer in this situation. A low-key insurgency can prevail for the next 10 or 20 years, but it has become quite difficult for them to keep the full-scale insurgency going across the country.”

Mr Mohmand also said that the number of foreign militants has also been reduced to a few hundred.

“Up to 300 or 400 foreign militants remain in Pakistan,” he explained. “They are Uzbek, Chechen, Turkmen and Arabs.”

He admits that the army has its justifications for the strikes after nine soldiers were killed in an attack on the forces, but opposes the widespread action.

“It was wrong to expand the area of operation,” he asserted. “The strikes should have been confined to recognised targets only.”

Asked about the possible result of the ongoing strikes and peace efforts, Mr Mohmand said that the government may be able to sign an accord with a faction of the TTP but several splinter groups would defy it.

“For a permanent solution, you will have to involve local tribesmen and disarm the militants through talks,” he said. “Then you can give them amnesty and include them in the mainstream on the assurance of the tribal elders.”

Published in Dawn, May 29th, 2014

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