Amid daily suicide attacks, the Pakistan Army is closing in on Taliban strongholds — and this time they seem to have the support of the Pakistani people, reports Mustafa Qadri from Islamabad
Pakistan’s once sleepy capital Islamabad has been transformed into something of a fortress, with checkpoints, cement barriers and police dotting the tree-lined streets. There is no doubt about it: Pakistan is at war, and the signs are everywhere. As of last week, the police alone say they have prevented 67 individuals from carrying out suicide attacks, most recently in a dramatic confrontation at a barricade in Islamabad.
But Peshawar, the capital of the frontline North West Frontier Province, has not been so lucky. There have been daily bombings in this ancient city that, since the start of the most recent Pakistan Army invasion into South Waziristan, have claimed around 300 lives. Earlier this month a suicide bomber targeted the powerful Inter Services Intelligence’s Peshawar offices. It is the second high profile attack on the country’s premier spy agency after a similar blast outside its Lahore offices killed more than 20 in May. The very next day another bomber killed 11 people including three children at a check post in Peshawar.
The most gruesome attack, however, was a blast at the crowded Meena Bazaar on 28 October that claimed 118 lives. Images of the aftermath, which were broadcast live by Pakistan’s numerous private news channels, so disturbed ordinary citizens that the Taliban eventually denied responsibility for the blast, claiming the American private military contractor Blackwater, now known as Xe, was responsible.
Those claims have received some currency among the population and have been championed by mainstream political groups like the religious Jamaat-e-Islami — as have claims by state security officials that Indian or other “foreign elements” are responsible.
Following the successful recapture of the Swat valley in the country’s northwest, the war has travelled to South Waziristan where the Army has made major inroads into regions that were considered too remote and impenetrable to be captured. South Waziristan is the central hub of Tehreek-e-Taliban — the Pakistan Taliban movement which, unlike its Afghan cousin, seeks the overthrow of the Pakistan state — and the current operations are aimed squarely at eliminating this branch of the group.
That distinction is pivotal to understanding this conflict: Pakistan’s army has not targeted all Taliban forces within Pakistan territory. Equally significant is the fact that Pakistan forces have not targeted al Qaeda sanctuaries, most of which are hosted by Afghan Taliban warlords in neighbouring North Waziristan.
When we queried the selective nature of Pakistan’s war against the Taliban in South Waziristan, newmatilda.com was told by security officials that Pakistan could not afford to fight every militant group in every tribal area at the same time. “Pakistan cannot fight on all fronts [at once],” Tariq Khan, Inspector General of the Frontier Corp, the main paramilitary force in the region, said in an interview in Peshawar.
According to recent reports, a major rift has emerged among Taliban warlords in Pakistan’s Waziristan region, resulting in many abandoning Tehreek. It’s likely that this rift has been exploited by the Army — veteran observers speculate that Pakistan security officials may have reached a secret deal with some of the other militant groups to isolate the Tehreek leader and his forces.
There also remains an acute concern that the Taliban retains sympathy from elements within Pakistan’s Army, as demonstrated by a recent attempt to invade Army headquarters which was orchestrated by a former officer. A recent report by veteran investigative journalist Seymour Hersh claimed that US forces had been engaged by Pakistan to safeguard its nuclear weapons in the event of a security crisis, including an attempt to capture them by rogue elements within the Pakistan Army. The allegations were angrily denied by the Army and Washington — but they do raise significant questions about Pakistan’s stability.
This has been a challenging war for Pakistan to say the least. Even in the most stable country, any battle that sets national forces against their own people would risk a serious backlash. Most Pakistanis saw the campaigns against the Taliban between 2004 and 2008 as pitting Muslims against Muslims at the behest of the United States. But that all seemed to change this year as the Taliban’s actions in the northwest Swat valley started to be widely reported by the media. As the Taliban’s excesses became apparent, the public in Pakistan began to rally behind its forces. That support spiked as violence, already familiar throughout the Pashtun-dominated parts of the country in the North West Frontier Province, began increasingly to hit the key political centres of Islamabad, Lahore, and Rawalpindi, where the Army has its headquarters.
For all the traumas, however, Pakistan has not collapsed as was widely predicted and, militarily at least, it has pushed the Taliban out of several key regions of the northwest tribal areas. In the Swat valley, life has even slowly started returning to normal as music shops and girls schools reopen. Ordinary Pakistanis have rallied behind the Army in this latest war against the Taliban.