Taking on the Taliban

Is Pakistan’s new strategy to push its Taliban into Afghanistan?

Taking on the TalibanSomething is seriously wrong when Afghans start looking at Pakistan as the regional war zone. It may sound strange, but that is exactly what has happened: Afghans are looking over the border at Pakistan and thinking, “Glad I’m not there.” Pakistanis are looking over at Afghanistan and wondering, “How did this happen?” More than three years ago, NATO troops, led by Canada and Britain, were moving into southern Afghanistan with a single-minded determination to take on the Taliban in their home territory. Now, Pakistan is following suit, rolling into South Waziristan in what its politicians are calling the “decisive blow” to their own Taliban menace. The aptly named Rah-i-Nijat operation, meaning “Path to Deliverance,” that was launched on Oct. 17 is not dissimilar to NATO’s push into southern Afghanistan back in 2006. The South Waziristan Agency is the hive where the most diehard of Pakistan’s Taliban fighters reside, including the much-feared Mehsud groups, and where foreign jihadis, mainly Uzbeks, have claimed their own mini-fiefdom, injecting a toxic mix of brutality and suicidal determination into the local Pashtun society.

There is, however, a critical difference to the two operations. NATO commanders hoped to deliver an actual death blow to the Taliban. Pakistan appears to be simply trying to push its own Taliban into Afghanistan.

It is, what many observers have noted, Pakistan’s endgame. Since Western forces removed the Afghan Taliban from power in 2001, Pakistani security forces have been desperately searching for a way to re-establish some measure of Taliban influence in Afghanistan, having supported that regime not just as a like-minded, conservative ally, but also as a bulwark against the spreading influence of arch-enemy India. During those early days, the army was deployed in support of Afghan Taliban fighters fleeing from their homeland. Fittingly, Waziristan was where some of those Pakistani troops were sent, to a small, never-before heard-of village on the Afghan border called Shawal. There, they protected the Afghan Taliban fighters and gave them sanctuary. With the support of local tribesmen, who themselves were Taliban supporters, the army reportedly allowed Shawal to be used as a base of operations for the Afghan Taliban against the invading foreigners.

The fleeing Taliban had also brought with them foreign fighters. Pakistan, under extreme pressure from the Bush administration, joined the war on terror. But extremism had also been building in Pakistan, a trend hastened by the arrival of hardened Islamic fighters from Afghanistan. Now, the alliance with Washington sparked a backlash from the brooding jihadis being groomed in Pakistan’s tribal belt. Some of those jihadis of the emerging Pakistani Taliban turned their guns on Pakistan. It may seem contradictory, but even as the Pakistani security services worried about their new homegrown version of the Taliban, they continued to secretly support the Afghan Taliban, in the hopes that someday they would again have a say in Afghan affairs.

But things got out of hand: the Pakistani Taliban, Pakistan’s generals soon realized, had developed some bite. Now, the current operation in Waziristan is being hailed as Pakistan’s response. The military has had enough. They will put an end to the menace.

But how? And how will this affect affairs in Afghanistan, and Pakistan’s policy toward its neighbour?

Based on the scale of the operation, it hardly appears like the definitive blow against the Taliban menace. Pakistan is sending in 28,000 troops (fully 15,000 participated in the recent and much smaller-scale offensive against the Taliban in the Swat valley—a sign that the military took that campaign seriously). That works out to approximately two per cent of its total military, reserve and paramilitary personnel, against an estimated 10,000 hard-core militants and an unknown number of auxiliaries, including numerous potential suicide bombers. Even by the Pakistani army’s own acknowledgement, this is a limited engagement, targeting only those groups that pose a threat to Pakistan. But mapping Pakistan’s strategy reveals some interesting dynamics: moving in from three directions—the north, the south and the east—the army appears to be pushing Taliban militants toward the mountainous border with Afghanistan’s Paktika province—directly, in fact, toward Shawal. The logic behind the strategy is obvious: with winter approaching, trap militants in the mountains, leaving them with two choices. One is to stay on the Pakistani side of the border and fight, which would give a massive advantage to Pakistan, considering its air and artillery power, as well as the army’s extensive experience in fighting high-altitude, winter battles in Kashmir. The second is to escape across the border to Afghanistan.

Maj.-Gen. Athar Abbas, the Pakistani army spokesman, says that is unlikely. “We have cut off all escape routes,” he says, a claim widely believed to be sketchy at best. Shawal has proven to be a difficult region to control, even by the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and U.S. troops operating on the other side of the border. With the limited resources Pakistan has committed to the Waziristan operation, most of which will be needed to actually fight the Taliban, it seems unlikely they would be in a position to also seal off the border.

The net result would be that the Pakistani Taliban becomes, if only for a while, Afghanistan’s problem, bringing further destabilization to that country’s fractious south—and the prospect that the newly arrived fighters might even take part in the Afghan insurgency. From a strictly self-interested perspective, that of course works nicely to Pakistan’s advantage as it continues to support the Afghan Taliban. This is, according to many observers, exactly what Pakistan has been hoping to achieve for years. Since major offensives against the Taliban began, starting with the Bajaur offensive in the summer of 2008, the Pakistani military has limited its targets to militant groups who directly threaten Pakistan itself. Others have been left alone: groups in Waziristan led by commanders like Maulvi Nazir, Hafiz Gul Bahadur, and Sirajuddin Haqqani, who have repeatedly said they do not consider Pakistan their enemy, and instead direct their attacks on ISAF and U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

Indeed, in the lead-up to the Waziristan operation, Pakistani authorities reportedly struck a deal with Bahadur and Nazir in which the two commanders have vowed to not participate in the battle, in exchange for the army reducing its presence in areas they control. Abbas, the army spokesman, vehemently denies the existence of any such deal. “No. Not true,” he said. “No deal has been struck with any group.” Pakistani intelligence officials in Peshawar, however, speaking on condition of anonymity, have confirmed to Maclean’s that such a deal was reached weeks ago.

For the Pakistani army, the agreement is necessary. Past operations in Waziristan have proven that the region is vastly more difficult to tame than an area like Swat, where Taliban-aligned militants were relatively easily dislodged and scattered. In Waziristan, even if Pakistan had committed substantially more troops, pursuing an objective to completely wipe out the Taliban would be unrealistic, leading to a long and bloody battle with the potential to demoralize the Pakistani army and further destabilize a shaky government in Islamabad.

Instead, Pakistan appears to be taking the path of least resistance and maximum strategic advantage. The Taliban continue to be viewed as an asset in Afghanistan, where Pakistani interests are inextricably woven with the movement’s survival in the face of increasing Indian influence in Kabul.

But for ISAF troops in Afghanistan, including Canadians based in Kandahar, the possibility of new fighters arriving from Pakistan represents a clear danger. Interestingly, in what appears to be an attempt to divert attention from Pakistan’s duplicity, Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, the country’s chief of army staff, has accused ISAF forces in Afghanistan of abandoning border posts in the region, saying that could allow Afghan Taliban to flood in to Pakistan to support their brethren. (That allegation, of course, undermines Abbas’s claim that the Pakistani military has cut off all escape routes out of the country—presumably those routes also serve as entry points into Pakistan, and if the military were indeed in control of them they could also keep out incoming militants.) According to an ISAF spokesman in Afghanistan, the international coalition does not man border posts; that is left to the Afghan border police. In response to Kayani’s allegation, the spokesman adds: “We would only comment on that if there were substance to it.”

In fact, the suggestion borders on the surreal: Pakistani authorities are now implying that the U.S.-backed coalition is helping the fundamentalist Taliban destabilize Pakistan. But it is to a degree a sign of how dysfunctional the relationship between Pakistan and the West has become. For months, ties have been eroding as the U.S. administration has tightened the screws on aid money for Pakistan, and continued to accuse its security services, singling out the Inter-Services Intelligence spy agency, of maintaining links with militant groups.

Meanwhile, the public mood in Pakistan is approaching near panic levels. Suicide attacks are an almost daily occurrence, with twin bombings in Islamabad on Tuesday killing seven, including the two suicide bombers. There is of course no guarantee that Pakistan’s strategy in Waziristan will put an end to the violence. Violent extremists remain entrenched in Punjab and in the southern port city of Karachi. Another group has emerged on the southwestern border with Iran—the Sunni extremist group Jundallah, meaning “the Soldiers of God.” It has been blamed for an Oct. 18 suicide attack on Iranian Revolutionary Guards in the Iranian border city of Pishin that killed 60 people. In response, Iran, which was to deliver some $300 million worth of aid to Pakistan, has threatened to end that flow, even as the official news agency called on Iranian security forces “to seriously deal with Pakistan once and for all.”

The developments have left many Pakistanis wondering how much more their country can take. Still, very few are willing to blame the army, long considered the only barrier standing in the way of the nation’s total collapse. Some, however, are starting to realize that the military must shoulder some of the blame for Pakistan’s current crisis. “If they don’t stop playing these games, then there will be grave consequences,” says Aqil Shah, a senior member of the provincial government in the country’s northwest. “It will mean the end of the nation. The time for games is over.”