Need for dialogue with militants
War against the Soviets produced Jihadis in Pakistan. Most of the Jihadis who took part in Afghan Jihad were from FATA and some parts of settled areas of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) like Malakand. Since Jihadis came from other Muslim countries as well, camaraderie developed among them. A small force of about 500-700 from Saudi Arabia under Osama bin Laden supported by CIA also took active part in Jihad. This force was later named as al-Qaeda. Strength of Jihadis in Pakistan multiplied in the wake of armed uprising in Indian occupied Kashmir (IOK) in 1989. Large number of Jihadi groups cropped up in IOK and few in Azad Kashmir to battle Indian security forces. Invasion of Afghanistan by the US led forces in October 2001 re-energized the Jihadis in Afghanistan as well as in FATA and Malakand.
Ruthless bombing of Tora Bora caves by occupation forces in December 2001forced al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders and operatives to flee and take refuge in neighboring northwestern tribal belt of Pakistan. Already large number of Afghans, Uzbeks, Chechens, Tajiks, Arabs and Africans had made it into their permanent abode and had got married. They had hired houses on high rents and were a source of good income for the locals.
Pakistan that had allied itself to USA to fight global war on terror as a frontline state was asked to flush out foreigners from FATA failing which the US military would be constrained to barge in. At that time, there were no Taliban in FATA or elsewhere in Pakistan except for a small percentage of Afghan Taliban sympathizers and admirers. Entry of regular troops in South Waziristan (SW) in 2002 and launching of operations against foreigners as well as their sympathizers gave birth to Pakistani Taliban and later led to creation of Tehrik-e-Taliban-Pakistan (TTP).
CIA and FBI had been given permission to establish outposts in FATA in 2002 so as to locate runaway al-Qaeda and Taliban. Taking advantage of this liberty of action the two agencies created a secret organization called ‘Spider Web’ mostly consisting of Pak Army’s retired commandos as well as specially trained soldiers of Afghan Army. They were tasked to eliminate all pro-Pakistan Maliks, notables and clerics in FATA and to scare away political agents and government officials. While ISI hunted and arrested over 700 al-Qaeda members and handed them over to US authorities, Spider Web members eliminated about 400 prominent pro-Pakistan tribesmen.
Their space was filled up by anti-Pakistan Maliks and clerics who were heavily bribed. The US played a double game from the very beginning by pressing Pakistan Army to fight the militants sheltering al-Qaeda. At the same time RAW trained and equipped rebels in Afghanistan and pitched them against Pak security forces. Abdullah Mehsud, brother-in-law of militant leader Baitullah Mehsud was released from Gitmo in 2003 for this very purpose. During his two years and six months of detention he was thoroughly brainwashed. Soon after his return, his men kidnapped two Chinese engineers employed in Gomal Zam dam and killed one of them. Baitullah and Abdullah operating in different sectors started to fight Pak forces vigorously.
Drone attack on a religious Madrassa in Bajaur on October 30, 2006 killing 80 young students and Lal Masjid military operation in July 2007 in which over 100 inmates were killed were two events which galvanized the youth to gravitate towards militancy. Hundreds of suicide bombers lined up and there was sudden escalation of suicide attacks in urban centres targeting both military and civilian targets. Terrorism got a fillip as a result of drone attacks which intensified after Obama took over in 2009.
After the death of Abdullah in Zhob in July 2007, Baitullah was able to unite different factions of militants in the seven tribal agencies under the umbrella of TTP in December 2007. It was a different entity from Mullah Omar which confined its fight against Pakistan and Pak security forces only. Gradually the TTP spread its tentacles to settled areas of KP including Swat, Malakand and Darra Adam Khel (DAK) as well as Pashtun belt of Balochistan and then into southern Punjab wherefrom large numbers were enrolled as Punjabi Taliban. TTP was able to convert SW, Swat and Bajaur into highly fortified strongholds. TTP chapter in DAK continuously threatened Kohat tunnel. Al-Qaeda linked with TTP provided technical, tactical and financial support to TTP. Several other banned extremist groups engaged in Kashmir Jihad, sectarianism and in criminal activities joined TTP out of expediency. It enabled TTP to strike targets in urban centres.
In Khyber Agency, Mangal Bagh heading Lashkar-e-Islam (LI) emerged in Bara Tehsil in 2007 as a powerful entity and threatened the capital city of Peshawar. After pushing out pro-government Ansar-ul-Islam (AI) from Bara it chased it to Tirah Valley. After a hard fight in early 2013, LI in collusion with TTP managed to expel AI from Tirah as well and the duo is now fighting security forces. In Kurram Agency, sectarian war between sub-tribes stoked by foreign hand took a heavy toll of lives. Mehmand Agency became another hotspot.
Swat and Malakand Division under the sway of Maulana Fazlullah, son-in-law of TNSM’s head Maulana Sufi virtually made Swat into a state within a state and unleashed a reign of terror on the people of Swat. Known as ‘Mullah Radio’, he not only exhorted people on radio to join his cadre but also trained teenage boys as suicide bombers at Mingora and at his HQ in Peochar. Bajaur became the exclusive domain of Maulvi Faqir Muhammad because of easy inflow of arms, equipment and funds from Kunar. This route of supply was also used for Swat via Dir. Srarogha became the command centre of TTP where Qari Hussain trained small boys aged between 11 to 18 years as suicide bombers. The three fortifications of Swat, Bajaur and SW had stored tons of sophisticated weaponry, ammunition and explosives in secret tunnels and caves to last them for next ten years.
After the second military operation in Swat, peace deal was signed with Maulana Sufi and Fazlullah in February 2009. KP government agreed to introduce Nizam-e-Adal in Swat and Malakand Division and the other side agreed to renounce violence. Hardly had the ink dried on the agreement when Fazllulah’s men opened new fronts in Buner and Dir, which raised alarm bells that militants were working their way towards Islamabad. All political forces got together and passed a joint resolution to combat the militant threat with full force. It led to launching of military operation codenamed Rah-e-Rast on April 28, 2009 which ensued heavy fighting but in the end security forces emerged as winners. Injured Fazlullah and his key leaders escaped to Kunar.
Simultaneously, the Frontier Corps launched an operation in Bajaur where the militants were joined by RAW trained Afghan militants. This fortress was also successfully subdued and peace restored after Faqir and his hardcore militants fled to Kunar. In August 2009, Baitullah Mehsud was killed by a drone. It led to war of succession but ultimately Hakimullah Mehsud was appointed the Ameer of TTP who was as vicious as Fazlullah. However, the cracks in TTP never got repaired. A cold war persisted between Hakimullah and Qari Hussain espousing extremist ideas and relatively moderate Waliur Rahman and Faqir Muhammad.
In reaction to Rah-e-Rast, Baitullah’s death and impending operation in SW, the TTP stepped up terrorist attacks. October 2009 was the heaviest in which GHQ was attacked on 10th, a military convoy was hit on 12th killing 41 soldiers, FIA building in Lahore attacked on 15th, ISI office in Peshawar on 16th, Islamic University Islamabad on 20th, a Brig was killed on 22nd, security post at Kamra attacked on 23rd, bomb blast in a restaurant in Peshawar on the same day, a Brig and his mother were shot at in Islamabad on 27th. These attacks impelled Gen Kayani to launch another military operation against the strongest base of TTP in SW. Operation Rah-e-Nijat was unleashed on 17th October 2009 and despite stiff resistance, the bastion of power was overpowered within one month.
With the dismantling of the main base, the TTP leadership got disarrayed and found refuge in other tribal agencies. Some escaped to Shawal Ranges and Paktika. The TTP’s current bases are in North Waziristan and Orakzai Agency, but it is also present in other agencies. Hakimullah is constantly on the run, changing his abodes frequently. For all practical purposes, his deputy Waliur Rahman managed the organization’s affairs. Qari Hussain’s death by a drone further weakened the hold of Hakimullah and strengthened Wali led lobby favoring talks with the government. But for constant support from TTP’s patrons based in Kabul, for all practical purposes it had lost its fighting potential after Operation Rah-e-Nijat.
However, RAW and Central Directorate of Security with the blessing of CIA came into action to reinvigorate TTP that had been created with a set agenda to pulverize Pak Army. Absconding Fazlullah and his men were activated in safe havens of Kunar and Nuristan. They were given houses, free rations and monthly pay as well arms and training facilities and launched into Dir, Mehmand, Bajaur and Chitral to heat up western border. Likewise, empty kitty of TTP was refilled and assigned new targets. Fresh recruits trained in Afghanistan were sent to keep the pot of war boiling. TTP was directed to target liberal parties during election campaign with a view to sharpen secular-Islamists divide, generate sympathy for the liberals, scare away the voters and create conditions conducive for a hung parliament. Additionally, hold talks from a position of strength. When a different picture emerged after May 11 and ground got leveled for talks between the government and TTP, drone strike was launched on May 30 to kill pro-talks Waliur Rahman. It was ill-timed and unjustifiable.
Death of Wali and his six close companions was a setback for the proposed talks which were round the corner in the wake of pro-talks political parties taking over power after May 11 elections. Lots of speculations are in the air. While the vested interest of anti-talks powerful group in USA is understandable, to suspect that military establishment not desiring talks had a hand in it is simply outlandish. Option of dialogue must be pursued irrespective of the impediments created by anti-talks lobbies. PML-N, PTI and other political and religious parties as well as Army and ISI must be on one page and the trio should collectively evolve a pragmatic strategy for conducting negotiations with TTP leadership and to ensure evolution of lasting peace agreement.
The writer is a retired Brig and a defence analyst. Email:firstname.lastname@example.org