It was not supposed to be like this: just a few months ago, Pakistan was basking in the glory of a decisive win over Taliban militants in the Swat Valley. The prestige of the beleaguered army had been restored and attacks in other parts of the country had dwindled to near zero. How quickly all of that has changed.
Over an eight-day period, Pakistan was rocked by a series of attacks that have left many wondering if the successes were only a glitch in an otherwise steady rise in violence and bloodshed. The numbers tell the tale: as of Tuesday, 106 dead and 145 injured, the vast majority of them civilians. Prior to the attacks, it was thought that the Taliban were broken and in disarray, unable to cause any serious damage after the death of their leader Baitullah Mehsud at the beginning of August in a U.S. drone strike and the subsequent power struggle to replace him. In hindsight, that now appears a little naive.
In the intervening weeks, as Pakistani leaders patted themselves on the back, the Taliban were regrouping. Their new leader, Hakimullah Mehsud, had promised severe attacks, revenge for the Swat operation and the death of his predecessor, and now has delivered on that promise. The Oct. 10 raid on Pakistan’s army headquarters in Rawalpindi, neighbouring the capital Islamabad, shows just how organized the Taliban are: a high-level of coordination with other militant groups, the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi in particular (which was in the past aided by the authorities), detailed planning that army investigators have revealed included maps of the compound, and the acquisition of military uniforms and military licence plates for the vehicle used in the attack. To hit at what is ostensibly Pakistan’s Pentagon, and manage to kill senior officers as well as take dozens of hostages, points to a level of sophistication many observers believed, even a few short weeks ago, the Pakistani Taliban no longer possessed.
Many people in Pakistan are questioning how such an attack could have happened: if the army cannot protect itself, television pundits warn, how can it protect the Pakistani people? “It’s starting all over again,” says Muhammad Alim, a variety store owner in Peshawar’s Khyber bazaar, where a blast on Oct. 9 killed 49 and injured scores more. “We were praying that it was over. Ramadan was peaceful but now the fear is back.” Is it plain incompetence on the army’s part? The largely successful operation in Swat would suggest otherwise. Over the course of that offensive, the Pakistani military has proven it can, if it so chooses, scatter the Taliban, forcing them into mountain hideouts and reducing their effectiveness. So why is Pakistan unable, or perhaps unwilling, to win its war?
One senior agent with Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the country’s premier spy agency, recently told Maclean’s that “victory cannot be measured in militants killed, or militant groups destroyed. For Pakistan, victory means ensuring our national interest. It is every nation’s right to act in its own self-interest.” But what is in Pakistan’s interest? If you ask Western leaders, it is to unequivocally erase the militant menace. But for Pakistani leaders the issue is much more complex.
In the eyes of some in the establishment, threats to the nation are everywhere. Pakistan’s very existence is at stake, they say, and any measure that guarantees its survival is acceptable. The ends justify the means, but the means are occasionally at odds with the expectations of the international community. The Swat operation is perhaps the exception, a demonstration that Pakistan is willing and able to tackle the militant threat. But there are now doubts surrounding a planned campaign against the Taliban on their home turf in the South Waziristan Agency. And other operations in the northwest appear less geared toward placating Western demands as they are the product of Pakistan’s own interest-driven agenda.
An ongoing operation in the Khyber Agency provides a glimpse into that murky world. The richest of Pakistan’s seven tribal agencies, Khyber is the last place Pakistani authorities expected to fall into militant hands. But its proximity to Peshawar, the capital of Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province, where most of the war against Islamic militancy is playing out, and the fact that the NATO and U.S. military supply route to Kabul runs through it along the historic Khyber Pass, makes it a jewel in any militant’s crown.
The Islamic fundamentalist of the day there is Mangal Bagh, a media-shy former bus conductor who has risen in the ranks to become Pakistan’s sixth-most-wanted militant. His rise, say locals and ISI sources, is the end result of a gambit played by Pakistan’s security services. Three years ago, Khyber was turning into a seething hotbed of militant groups vying for supremacy. The ISI, hoping to pre-empt a standoff with a group opposed to the Pakistani government and military, opted to back Bagh and his Lashkar-e-Islam (LeI), a group supportive of authorities but demanding the imposition of strict Islamic law.
Their choice has proven costly. Since the LeI effectively took over in Khyber, militant attacks in Peshawar have skyrocketed. The problem is not so much the LeI, which the ISI can control, but the group’s relative weakness. “Mangal Bagh knows he doesn’t have the power to take on the Taliban,” says Iqbal Khattak, the Peshawar bureau chief for the Daily Times newspaper. “They have infiltrated the area under his control.”
LeI commanders deny allegations they are providing a safe haven to Taliban fighters. “We have nothing to do with them,” says one senior commander. “They are against the government but we support Pakistan and its leaders.” But Pakistan’s military spokesman, Maj.-Gen. Athar Abbas, counters that the LeI is in league with the Taliban. “If Mangal Bagh was ever against the Taliban, he is not anymore,” Abbas says. “He has changed.”
The LeI is now supposed to be suffering the consequences, at least according to the official narrative. Bara, a dusty village that was once Bagh’s stronghold, is being reported to be under siege by government forces. According to military press releases, the militants there are on the run. The area, not more than 10 km outside of Peshawar, is under curfew. But on a recent visit there, this reporter found LeI fighters walking around openly with weapons. Mangal Bagh remains on the loose and, according to his fighters, whatever military operation there was is winding down. In the context of Pakistani interests, the LeI remains an asset, another militant proxy that can be used in the future if the need arises.
It’s an old game, and one Pakistan’s security forces seem reluctant to abandon. Even now, as former assets like the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi turn their guns on their one-time benefactors, the military continues to groom its future militant allies, perhaps at the expense of the fight against the Taliban. But the world seems to have caught on. A recent aid bill passed by the U.S. Congress imposes strict conditions on Pakistan’s military. Money for counterterrorism will flow only if Pakistan tackles the militancy problem, and the military submits to strict civilian oversight.
The subtext is clear: the Pakistani military cannot be trusted. The problem now is that the military has adopted a pouting posture that may affect it taking on the Taliban in South Waziristan. “As long as the controversy over the bill does not go away,” says Khattak, “the Waziristan operation will be difficult to start.”
The trust issue, however, runs both ways. In Pakistan’s political and military circles, the prevailing belief is that the U.S. will walk away from the region after its interests are met, much as it did following the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan in 1989, leaving behind the overarching problems that Pakistan has obsessed over for decades, and one in particular: India. Growing Indian influence in Afghanistan is a festering wound on the Pakistani psyche which, the senior ISI agent contends, is forcing Pakistan to look to militants to counter the threat.
Those interests extend into Waziristan, where certain groups nominally affiliated with the Taliban have at one time or another allied themselves with the Pakistani government, focusing their jihad on Afghanistan. It’s likely that military leaders will want to find a way to defeat the groups that pose a threat to the Pakistani nation, while at the same time leaving groups who represent a potential asset to counter the Indian influence in Afghanistan intact. But it will be a difficult juggling act. And if past attempts are any measure of Pakistan’s proficiency at keeping all its balls in the air, the world can expect to see a few of them come crashing down to earth.