What Next in Pakistan’s Pashtun Belt?
By B. Raman
The Pakistan Army and the US intelligence are making headway in the battle against jihadi terrorism — the indigenous as well as the global varieties— in Pakistan’s Pashtun tribal belt in the Malakand Division of the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) and the Federally-Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).
2. They are working in tandem in some places such as the Swat Valley of the Malakand Division and South Waziristan in the FATA and separately of each other in co-ordinated, but not joint operations in other areas such as the Bajaur and the North Waziristan Agencies of the FATA. While the Pakistan Army has been exclusively handling the ground situation in the Bajaur Agency with very little US involvement, the US has been keeping up relentless pressure on the terrorists in North Waziristan and occasionally in South Waziristan through its Drone (pilotless planes) strikes.
3. There is a gentlemen’s agreement between Islamabad and Washington that the former will keep making proforma protests against the Drone strikes without trying to stop them. If Pakistan protests really and vehemently, the US will have to stop them. The US is able to continue them because the Pakistani protests are a charade. Pakistan knows it is benefiting from the Drone strikes and wants them to continue. Fears that disproportionate civilian casualties might add to anti-American feelings have been belied. Civilian casualties there have been, but they are not as heavy as made out by some US analysts. Even the Pakistani civil society and the local tribal population no longer protest against the civilian casualties. They have realised that by eliminating the jihadi terrorist leaders of not only Al Qaeda, but also indigenous organisations such as the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and the anti-Shia Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LEJ) and trans-border organisations such as the anti-Chinese Islamic Movement of East Turkestan (IMET) the US has given them some relief from the intimidation and terror imposed on the local population by these terrorist groups.
4. There are signs of a jihadi fatigue in the Pakistani Pashtun belt. This fatigue should account for the remarkable decline in public protests over the Drone strikes. It has also contributed to the increasing flow of valuable intelligence to the US agencies. Almost all the successful US Drone strikes were intelligence-driven. Initially, the intelligence came overwhelmingly from technical sources. Now, they are coming more and more from human sources. When there is popular fatigue with the terrorists, intelligence flow improves. We are witnessing this in the tribal belt.
5. The remarkable successes of the US intelligence in North Waziristan have been accompanied by the headway made by the Pakistani security forces in the Swat Valley, South Waziristan and the Bajaur Agency. These operations cannot be described as successful in terms of identified terrorist leaders neutralised by the Pakistan Army. Many of the terrorist leaders operating in these areas have escaped capture by the Pakistan Army. Their trained followers have dispersed and peeled off. They have retained a capability for re-grouping and striking back at a later stage if the Army pressure eases.
6. Despite this, the Pakistan Army operations have been successful in the sense that it has been able to re-establish territorial control over Swat, South Waziristan and the Bajaur Agency and deny the use of this territory to the terrorists. Is this territorial control ephemeral or will it be enduring? The training and equipment given by the US to Pakistani para-military forces such as the Frontier Corps have improved their morale and made them fight better to wrest control of the territory from the terrorists, but their ability to hold on to the “newly liberated” territory in the face of a renewed assault is yet to be tested.
7. Any comprehensive operation in this area has to have three components—liberate, hold on to it and develop. Only the first component is now being attempted by the Army with US assistance. US policy-makers and Pakistani civilian leaders are yet to pay attention to the other two components. Holding on to the “liberated” territory demands massive investments for a crash development of roads and other means of communications. One sees no signs of any such investments and related activity. It also demands a robust civilian governing machinery which enforces the civilian authority, brings the liberated areas into the national political mainstream from which the entire FATA had remained excluded ever since Pakistan became independent in 1947 and undertakes massive economic development programmes.
8. The elected civilian Government in Islamabad has shown very little interest in the civilian follow-up to the military actions. It has left all the initiatives in the FATA in the hands of the Army. There is hardly any thinking or discussion in Islamabad or the rest of the country on how to increase the extent and effectiveness of the civilian governing machinery in the tribal belt. The civilian leaders have no interest in the tasks of governance in the tribal areas. Even US policy-makers and experts have shown not much interest in following up on the military successes by undertaking a programme for changing the political and economic landscape of the tribal areas.
9. This total lack of interest in “what next” could facilitate re-grouping and a come-back by the terrorists and insurgents.