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    South Asia
     Jul 18, 2009
Pakistan wields a double-edged sword
By Syed Saleem Shahzad

KARACHI - The first few thousand of more than 3 million people displaced by fighting in Pakistan's Swat and Malakand regions in North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) have returned to their homes. Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the United States Joint Chiefs of Staff, on a tour to a refugee camp, said this week he was "optimistic" about the job more than 30,000 troops are doing in tackling militants in the area.

The months-long offensive in and around Swat has, however, stirred bitter resentment against the Pakistan Army and its Operation Rah-e-Raast (Operation for the Right Path), despite the positive spin the authorities try to put on the operation and their

 

claims of killing top Taliban commanders.

The army's media relations department has claimed on at least four occasions that Mullah Fazlullah, nicknamed "Radio Mullah", the leader of the pro-Taliban Tehrik-Nifaz-i-Shariat-i-Mohammadi (TNSM) that controls the insurgency in Swat, had been seriously wounded.

In all likelihood, the latest offensive will be much like Operation Rah-e-Haq (2007-08) in the Swat Valley, where the militants weathered the storm and emerged stronger than ever. Once the refugees return home, the militants will take up arms again for more pitched battles.

Contrary to the military's claims of hundreds of militants killed, the militants say they have lost only 50 of their men, with the remainder being civilians killed in crossfire or in aerial bombings. Of the 50, two commanders - one named only as Daud and the other as Shah Doran - have died.

The military operation has seen the emergence of a new supreme commander of the Swat Valley - Bin Yameen. He is fiercely anti-army and insiders say that even if ceasefires agreements are made, he will ignore them and fight to his last man and last bullet.
Renowned as a pir (spiritual guide), Bin Yameen is a former Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM - led by Maulana Masood Azhar) leader in Swat. He spent seven years as a prisoner of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance after being captured in Afghanistan fighting for the Taliban in the 1990s. On his release, he returned to Swat and joined the JeM. In mid-2000, he was picked up by Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence for alleged involvement in an unsuccessful plot to assassinate president General Pervez Musharraf.

A top jihadi leader who was detained - also without trial - over the same incident told Asia Times Online, "He [Bin Yameen] was the victim of the worst sort of torture by army personnel, right up to the time it became crystal clear that he was not involved in any activity against the army or Musharraf. He became full of venom against the army."

After his release, Bin Yameen joined Mullah Fazlullah's TNSM, but retained command over a group of men loyal to him. Now there is a slogan that says "Bajaur [Agency] belongs to Faqir and Swat belongs to pir". (Faqir refers to another anti-army militant, Maulana Faqir Mohammad, whose brother was killed by the army in a torture cell.) At present, the entire Taliban leadership in the Malakand area is lying low, leaving Bin Yameen and his men face-to-face with the army.

Bin Yameen is just one example of a Talib who was once used by the military to further its strategic depth in Afghanistan, but who is now bitterly opposed to the army. In a similar manner, in the past month, the "war on terror" has taken a turn.

The Pakistan army had favored opening several fronts against militants in the troubled tribal areas, but the new US and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, and other US officials wanted to concentrate on closing the Taliban's supply lines to Afghanistan's Helmand province, as a NATO operation was planned for there.

The only Pakistani Taliban commander who sends his men to Helmand is Baitullah Mehsud in South Waziristan. Over the past few years, he has dispatched several thousand fighters. (A command structure comprising former Kashmiri fighters, under Abdul Jabbar, also sends men to Helmand.)

A few months ago, when the Malakand operation was in full swing, the Americans became so desperate that action should be taken against Pakistani militants who were due to go into Helmand that the Pakistani establishment believed they would take matters into their own hands and move into Pakistan.

To pre-empt this, all possible tribal rivals of Baitullah Mehsud in South Waziristan were organized (all were Taliban) under the banner of the Pakistan army. Qari Zainuddin Mehsud, whom the army claimed had 3,000 men, could hardly gather a few dozen, as with Haji Turkestan. The biggest Taliban commander on the Pakistani side, Mullah Nazir, an arch-rival of Baitullah due to tribal feuds, initially assured the army he would stay neutral if action were taken against Mehsud. Another Taliban commander, Gul Bahadur, also a rival of Baitullah, was silent.

Baitullah responded by conveying a message through influential commander Sirajuddin Haqqani to all Taliban leaders that if the Pakistan army entered South Waziristan, it would be completely under American pressure. As such, they should not make any agreements with the army.

Mullah Nazir promptly refused to allow the army passage in his area; Qari Zainuddin Mehsud was assassinated by Baitullah's men and Haji Turkestan went into hiding and refused to cooperate with the army.

With the army nevertheless poised to attack Baitullah last month, Gul Bahadur, considered "good Taliban" by the army, broke a ceasefire in North Waziristan by carrying out a devastating attack on a military convoy in which three officers and 26 soldiers were killed. Thirty military personnel were also abducted.

The incident stunned the army and it was faced with the reality that far from eliminating Baitullah, he had emerged as the leader of all of the Pakistani Taliban; tribal feuds had been put aside. This was despite the fact that the army clarified on a number of occasions that the military operation was only against Baitullah, not even against his tribe. Clearly, no one believed the army.

Credibility problem
Three weeks ago, police arrested five bandits in the southern port city of Karachi - Adil, Shah Hussain, Ahmed Baloch, Rahmat and Sher Muhammed, all from the Mehsud tribe and none of them from the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan.

They were simply bandits who happened to be Mehsuds. However, the army was so keen to settle scores with Baitullah that a military security unit ordered a police officer, Raja Umar Khattab, to shoot them. Khattab refused, as he was aware, after their 15 days in custody, that they were just bandits and that an extra-judicial killing would land him in serious trouble.

The five were then transferred to another police officer, who did the deed. The bodies were immediately sent to South Waziristan with a message to Baitullah that the "more you defy us, the more you will collect the bodies of your tribal men".

This sordid episode further cemented the support of the entire Mehsud tribe around Baitullah, including all Taliban commanders. Baitullah is once again the undisputed number one commander of the Pakistani Taliban.

The military's missteps were not limited to Waziristan and the Swat Valley, as shown in the operation in Orakzai Agency - an outpost of Baitullah's where his cousin, Hakimullah Mehsud, calls the shots.

The Taliban control the regions of Khyber Agency and Kurram Agency through Orakzai, and it is also the main hub for carrying out attacks on Peshawar, the capital of NWFP.

During the operation, aircraft destroyed the biggest seminary in the agency, in the process killing the highly respected 72-year-old religious scholar Mufti Amin, a pro-army cleric who opposed suicide attacks on the Pakistani security forces.

The next day, the director general of Inter-Services Public Relations, Major General Athar Abbas, scornfully declared Mufti Amin a "miscreant". This inflamed the ordinary people of Orakzai and they turned hostile to the army. A military helicopter was soon after shot down in the agency, killing several personnel, including a colonel. When a team was sent to collect the remains, the Taliban ambushed it and and killed 40 people.

With events spiraling out of control on several fronts, military headquarters in Rawalpindi approached all Taliban commanders about a ceasefire. They were assured that if the militants provided guarantees, a ceasefire deal was also possible in Swat Valley. This initiative came too late as anti-army militants are entrenched in their views.

Another misstep
In April, some high profile arrests (Exposed jihadis put Pakistan on the spot Asia Times Online, May 5, 2009) uncovered a jihadi network operating through Pakistan. As a result, a top jihadi commander, Abdul Jabbar, was forced to take refuge in North Waziristan.

Jabbar had always opposed attacks on the Pakistani security forces as well as jihadi operations in Pakistan. Under US pressure (more than 500 Americans have arrived in Islamabad to observe developments) an operation was organized against militants in the southern Punjab and several high-profile commanders, including one named Farooq and other members of the Jaish-e-Mohammad, were arrested.

A top jihadi leader commented to Asia Times Online, "We never imagined such a reaction. We have not fought against the Pakistan army and we do not consider it right. But if the present arrests continue, what option will we have ... without going to Waziristan and doing what other people are doing there?

Military headquarters believes that people like Maulana Sufi Mohammad - spearhead of the sharia movement in Malakand division - are an ace in their hand. He is being detained in a military safe house. But in recent weeks, the militants' command structure has changed and people like Sufi Mohammad have become irrelevant. Now it is people like Bin Yameen, once an asset, who call the shots against the militants.

Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can be reached at saleem_shahzad2002@yahoo.com

(Copyright 2009 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)


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