Saturday, April 25, 2009

Pakistani Insurgents Put on a Show

Pakistani insurgents are demonstrating imressive tatics in an offensive that is humiliating an apparently comatose Pakistani state….Or is Islamabad in collusion?

In a move that apparently took Islamabad completely by surprise, the insurgents who have been ruling Swat District for months came up with the idea of visiting neighboring districts as well. State power was removed as though someone had pulled the plug in Buner, and then the government was evidently similarly surprised when the insurgent roadtrip continued on to Shangla. Or is someone in Islamabad cutting a deal?

Having smoothly taken over Buner District of the Pakistani NWFP [map] just south of Swat District during April, they have now moved into Shangla District, which borders Buner on the north and Swat on the east. At the same time, the insurgent visitors allowed themselves to be photographed promptly leaving Buner (having empowered their local insurgent allies).

Some 500 security personnel in Buner were inexplicably unable to pose any deterrent to the insurgents or evidently even able to call in military support. A local police officer’s excuse that “when you are confronted with better-equipped and better-trained people who have higher morale, the writ of the district police collapses” hardly explains the instantaneous and humiliating collapse of state power.

The Pakistani state appears unbelievably incompetent and out-of-touch. How could they not have known? If the insurgents can move by truck from one district to another, if the insurgents have radio communications, then how could Islamabad, less than 100 miles away, have no idea what was going on? The obvious conclusion is that Islamabad thinks it can cut a deal. Perhaps it can: recognize, after all these years, Pashtunistan, in return for an insurgent promise to stay in the mountains and point their guns toward Afghanistan.

Although Pakistan is sending Frontier Constabulary troops to Buner, it nevertheless has effectively recognized the legitimacy of the insurgents’ assertion of the right to participate in governing:

The march on Shangla came after the district administration recognised Taliban’s control over Buner district by holding a jirga with a local commander to lay down procedures to govern the district. The Taliban are presenting a relatively moderate face for an insurgency, though occasionally initiating skirmishes against government forces.

The initial insurgent group entering Shangla reportedly only consisted of a few dozen soldiers, who were evidently unopposed. This is by no means the first sign of insurgent interest in Shangla. In November 2007, a force of some 500 insurgent fighters temporarily took control of Shangla. On that occasion, local tribal leaders opposed both insurgent and government interference in their local affairs.

In the current case, the insurgents appear to be trying to minimize tensions, and the spokesman of Tehreek-e-Taliban Swat, Haji Muslim Khan, announced that “Taliban’s pull out from Buner has started.” Sufi Mohammed, the chief of Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat Muhammadi (TNSM), has been making a show of being peacemaker. The pullout is, however, less than it seems, since “local Taliban” will reportedly not only be staying but are continuing to occupy houses seized from local residents. Moreover, it is not clear whether Sufi Mohammed is actually persuading more radical insurgent groups to modify their behavior or whether the whole operation, in which the insurgents have so far played on the stage by themselves, is for the cameras.

By entering, asserting control, and voluntarily withdrawing, the insurgents made their point. Everyone has been shown who is boss; the insurgents can claim to be acting “moderately;” the locals know full well that insurgents forces who entered from neighboring districts without permission and retired voluntarily can perfectly well return, ensuring that local insurgents will remain much more influential than before unless the Pakistani state makes a fundamentally new commitment to the region.

The insurgents in NWFP are displaying remarkably sophisticated tactics – rapid movement, flexible politics, the use of pointed but restrained force, a moderate face. Their long-term objectives, at least according to this report, may be somewhat harsher:

Malakand Division, a region that encompasses more than one-third of the North-West Frontier Province is now under a Sharia system that will primarily be defined by two great "jurists-in-law" (father-in-law and son-in-law). One is Maulana Fazlullah, whose real skills lie in the fields of radio frequency (RF) engineering and mass murder. He did not just ask 80,000 girls to quit education, but also destroyed the 200 schools that were engaged in this process. He also waged a bloody war against the state of Pakistan, killing hundreds of soldiers and civilians, in some cases dragging their dead bodies on the roads. The other is Sufi Mohammad, who was in jail till a few months back for his excellence in raising private armies. He led some 5,000 young men into Afghanistan in 2001, most of whom never returned to fight another day.

We need to understand what Sufi Mohammad and company really want. ''We hate democracy," Sufi recently told the crowd of thousands of followers in Mingora.

"We want the occupation of Islam in the entire world. Islam does not permit democracy or election. From the very beginning, I have viewed democracy as a system imposed on us by the infidels. Islam does not allow democracy or elections," he told the German news agency DPA just days before the Swat Accord was signed. His role model of a government is the Insurgents government that ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001. He said: "I believe the Taliban government formed a complete Islamic state, which was an ideal example for other Muslim countries." The Sufi has no ambiguity on the nature of punishments that he intends to generously distribute. "Penalties, including flogging, chopping off hands and stoning to death, must be available to Swat's Islamic courts. These punishments are prescribed in Islam. No one can stop that. It is God's law," said Sufi Mohammad, sitting on the floor in his makeshift headquarters in Mingora.

Meanwhile, in Orakzai Agency of FATA the government used helicopters and jet fighters in fierce fighting against the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), whose Orakzai chapter commander said “until the government stops operations and ensures a halt to the drone attacks in the tribal areas, the TTP will continue attacking the government installations.”

The real story, as far as the integrity of the Pakistani state is concerned, may well turn out to be among the urban poor who have been left out as the military and civilian political elite benefitted from modernization. The comment of Director General ISPR Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas that the “Pakistan Army is capable and ready to defend the country” and that “the extremists were receiving foreign aid” suggests Islamabad remains deeply in denial, paralyzed by its traditional anti-Indian fixation.

To what degree the various insurgent groups use varying tactics according to the situation or because they remain distinct organizations with distinct intent is unclear because organizational structure, tactics, and goals are evolving…and evolving faster than the Pakistani regime seems able to keep up.

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