By B. Raman
The anger in some sections of the Pakistani public over the Army raid into the Lal Masjid in Islamabad in July 2007 when Gen. Pervez Musharraf was in power is showing signs of subsiding. This can be seen in the decrease in the number of suicide attacks by the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), as the Pakistani Taliban is called, and its associates such as the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LEJ) against the Pakistani security forces outside the Pashtun tribal belt. They continue to confront the security forces in the Pashtun belt —often successfully— but the number of successful attacks against the security forces in the non-Pashtun belt has been decreasing. The anger over the Lal Masjid raid is no longer an adequate motivating factor for recruiting volunteers for acts of suicide terrorism against the security forces—particularly in the Punjab.
The TTP and its associates are trying to compensate for this by inciting Pashtun anger against the US Drone (unmanned aircraft armed with missiles) strikes in North and South Waziristan. Since President Barack Obama came to office in January 2009, there has not only been a considerable surge in the Drone strikes, but there has also been a diversification of the targets of their missile attacks. Under George Bush, the Drone attacks were largely directed against Al Qaeda and its associates, including the Afghan Taliban. Under Obama, they have also been targeting the TTP and its associates— particularly after the suspected involvement of the TTP in the killing of some officers of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in the bordering Khost area of Afghanistan in December, 2009 and in instigating and training a US citizen of Pakistani origin to carry out a terrorist strike in the Time Square of New York in May last year. The attack was unsuccessful.
The TTP is now trying to incite anger among the Pashtuns against the Drone strikes in order to maintain the flow of volunteers for suicide terrorism. There has always been anger against the Drone strikes which, under Bush, caused many civilian fatalities leading to public demonstrations against the US in the Federally-Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). The Obama Administration has succeeded in bringing down the number of civilian fatalities and one no longer sees such public demonstrations after every Drone strike as one used to see when Bush was in office. But the anger against the Drone strikes persists despite the decrease in civilian fatalities.
This anger is being exploited for the recruitment and motivation of suicide volunteers for attacks on targets in the security forces. One saw a fairly successful car-borne attack by a suicide bomber on January 12 against a police station at Merian in the Bannu District of the Khyber Pakhtunkwa province where a company of the Army-controlled Frontier Corps (FC) para-military force has been stationed to aid the civilian police. According to latest reports, 17 persons — all FC personnel — died in the attack.
A spokesman of the TTP is reported to have claimed responsibility for the attack and projected it as an act of retaliation against the Drone strikes. The attack coincided with the visit of Vice-President Joe Biden to Islamabad for talks with the Pakistani leaders. Despite periodic public criticism of the Drone strikes by Pakistani leaders, large sections of the public suspect a silent complicity of the political and military leadership with the US in the Drone strikes.
This suspicion has been strengthened by one of the leaked WikiLeaks cables from the US Embassy in Islamabad to the State Department, which quotes Anne Patterson, the then US Ambassador to Pakistan, as saying as follows: “While far from perfect, you will find Zardari is pro-American, anti-extremist and eager to be seen as working with the USG. Zardari runs the show on the civilian side, although he is not a popular leader and admits himself that he came to high office without previous direct experience as an elected politician. Secular and westernized, Zardari sees himself as viewing the world the way Americans do; this same image works against him with the public.”
The TTP believes that secret support for the Drone strikes has come not only from President Asif Ali Zardari, but also from Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, the Chief of the Army Staff (COAS). It remains to be seen whether the TTP and its associates will be able to step up the suicide attacks against the security forces and attack even the political leadership by exploiting the anti-Drone anger, which is not as intense as the anger against the Lal Masjid raid used to be from 2007 to 2010.