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Notes from Mohmand

September 09, 2012

HOW do you win against an enemy who only needs to not lose?

It’s a problem that has confounded counter-insurgency campaigns the world over, and it’s a problem the Pakistan Army is struggling to overcome in Fata.

The army has figured out how to ‘clear’ — at least in terms of clusters of militants — and they’ve managed to ‘hold’ fairly well. They also know what comes next: ‘transfer’.

But that crucial step is proving trickier than perhaps imagined.

Officially, the plan is to ramp up the civil administration and shore up the local forces. Have the khasadars and the levies take over policing responsibilities as and where possible and use the political agent’s office and the malik system to develop areas and win back hearts and minds.

Except, it’s hard for the civilians to take ownership in an area overrun by security forces. The office of the political agent in Mohmand was an unhappy case in point.

The de facto baadshah of a tribal agency in an era past, the political agent has been reduced to a shadow of himself.

The first sign of decrepitude is the absence of people. Locals used to queue up outside a political agent’s office from the early hours of the morning to get their problems solved.

In Mohmand, there is no one waiting to meet the political agent. People know where the power lies now and power today wears a military uniform.

Also insightful was an embarrassing few minutes while in conversation with the political agent.

A PA’s office is set up to project power. Seated behind a large desk, there are no chairs for guests on the other side of his table.

Instead, visitors must sit at a distance on chairs lined up against the walls.

Perhaps by design or maybe by default, a strip of white marble runs around the floor just in front of the chairs pressed up against the wall — a physical marker separating the PA’s space from those he permits to visit him.

But, in this land of tribal honour and pride, all pretences of power vaporised in an excruciating few minutes. The PA’s personal phone rang and it quickly became apparent it was someone from the security apparatus calling.

From the PA’s clipped answers, the questions were obvious. Who were his visitors? Why were they in Mohmand? Which organisation did they belong to? What were their job descriptions? Were they recording or filming?

Who was the visitor from Karachi? Cee-ral? Sigh-ril? Helpless, the PA looked at me for a spelling. Where were we planning on going? How long would we stay?

Just like that, the PA had been reduced to a pitiable figure. Even to a visitor from Karachi, it was clear who is boss in Mohmand.

Outside, a quick query produced an uncomfortable answer: the most senior officer in Mohmand at the moment is of middle rank. “The PA can’t even stand up to a captain,” a local remarked contemptuously.

So how do you transfer responsibility to the civilian apparatus when he has no power?

There are no answers in Mohmand. And Mohmand hasn’t seen the kind of truly intense insurgency that other parts of Fata have.

Unable to move forward, the fear is that Mohmand could slip back. For how long can you claim to have succeeded in ‘holding’, particularly when the battle has morphed?

The army and the FC do physically dominate the space. But the Taliban leadership has fled and foot soldiers who stayed have melted away.

Hunting down the militants while trying to protect your forces tends to exact a heavy price on the local population. And a heavy price tends to produce more Taliban sympathisers.

If this were a frontal war, it would be a no-contest. The Taliban simply don’t have the firepower to defeat the security forces.

But the Taliban have adapted. They have time, they have local intelligence and their attacks require few resources of war.

The army believes the key is Afghanistan: when the war against occupation ends there, much of the oxygen will be sucked out of the war in Fata.

But that tends to miss the point. Fata is no Balochistan. There isn’t a separatist movement and the Taliban haven’t earned widespread sympathy.

What does exist, though, in Fata is an infrastructure for jihad. Roam through Mohmand and the health centres and clinics and schools sponsored by the religious right are more evident than state institutions.

Scratch that surface, speak to locals and the parallel infrastructure that has mushroomed over the last three decades emerges unmolested.

How many were part of the Mohmand Taliban when it announced its arrival in an orgy of blood and gore? A few hundred, maybe a few thousand at most?

In a shadowy war, they need even fewer to survive. That unmolested infrastructure of jihad can supply the required few.

The unsettling part is that you get a sense that the state wishes it could just put back the lid on the Fata box and get on with life.

Don’t harm us, we won’t harm you. If we do need to use you on occasion, consider it your contribution to the national interest.

But that’s what created the mess in the first place. Five decades of Fata being a closed box created the conditions for the last decade of mayhem.

In Mohmand, for all the progress on the security front, you can’t shake off the feeling that the state has run out of ideas.

The head is back in the sand. Except this time, there’s an IED planted next to it.

The writer is a member of staff.

Twitter: @cyalm