Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Stormclouds in Pakistan

Intense fighting, strong insurgent resistance, a new refugee wave, a pervasive insurgent presence still in Buner despite the weekend's show of withdrawal, and a loud TNSM display of righteous indignation are thunderheads on the horizon of Pakistan's political future.

On Tuesday, Rizwanullah Farooq, son of Sufi Muhammad--head of Tehreek-e-Nifaaz-e-Shariat-e-Muhammadi (TNSM)--said:

The peace accord has weakened and is shaky. If it breaks, there will be a storm in the whole country.
He is certainly correct that the peace accord, signed in February with the understanding that the government would allow sharia courts in return for an end to violence, is shaky. It is shaky because the Taliban is on the offensive. While the precise geographic extent of the agreement with the government to accept sharia seems unclear, the Taliban could argue that it authorizes sharia throughout much of the region, not just Swat, and that they are just implementing that agreement…except for the killings, threats against politicians and reporters, theft of public property, and general intimidation of the population.

Soldiers were reportedly moving toward Swat over the weekend, amid rumors of government plans for a Bajaur-style scorched earth attack that would destroy society and create another wave of internal refugees to join those still in tents from last year’s Bajaur battle.

Indeed, a battle over the last couple days in Islampura and Lal Qila occurred, ending with an apparent government victory. The soldiers were on an offensive in Lower Dir district of Malakand when attacked by insurgents. The fact that the government attacked Sufi Muhammad’s ancestral village would not seem to bode well for the future peace of the region.

By the 28th, the government was heralding a “major offensive” against “500” insurgents still supposedly in Buner, the locale that had theoretically just been vacated. The number is both much higher than in other reports and suspiciously rounded, raising the possibility that the military is inflating it to make their forthcoming victory more impressive. If true, this high number corroborates government claims, based on intercepted insurgent communications, that they their “pullout” from Buner was staged.

Over the weekend, the Taliban in Swat prevented the Pakistani army from sending supplies to its troops, and the provincial governor intervened on the side of the Taliban, persuading the army to pull back. Not only have the Taliban now made it clear that they effectively have an independent country in Swat but the regional arm of the Pakistani state has supported them! If a separate report to the effect that the ISI persuaded the Taliban to withdraw from neighboring Buner to avoid being attacked by the U.S. turns out to be true, this even further confuses the lines. Exactly what sort of insurgency is being run in Pakistan if the government can successfully “tell” the insurgents attacking it when they should withdraw? Has Islamabad become no more than the intermediary between the two warring sides? In any case, by April 28 it was apparent that the pullout was staged, raising the question of whether or not that too might have been part of ISI plans.

On Tuesday, the NWFP government again pushed for compromise, with Minister Mian Iftikhar Hussain announcing the imminent establishment of sharia courts and inviting Sufi Muhammid for talks. The TNSM leader is currently refusing to talk because of the government attack on Dir. The insurgents are willing to talk after one of their offensives but refuse to talk when the government “breaks the agreement” by countering with an offensive of its own.

Contrasting with the obvious wishes of the provincial government for compromise, Islamabad let it be known that it was discussing the possibility of continuing the government offensive into Swat. So the insurgents have now warned the government and the government has warned the insurgents: coming storm indeed. (For an interesting map of the rapidly evolving political influence in the region, see the Long War Journal.)

Two things to watch are civilian impact (casualties, refugees) and non-violent follow-up. The weekend military operation in Lower Dir has reportedly already resulted in 60,000 refugees. Ominously, despite heavy air attacks, several dozen of the government forces were captured, raising the question of the reliability of the mostly Pashtun Frontier Constabulary and police.

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