Behind the headlines of a Presidential election, which has thrustPakistaninto a constitutional and political crises, the country continues to suffer a deadly challenge to its very survival as a functional state. While the whole nation looks to the courts for relief from the stranglehold on power that General Musharraf has exerted for seven years, the growth and resurgence of emboldened extremists continues to form a dangerous backdrop to power jockeying inIslamabad.Afghanistan and Iraq, which were once cited as examples of anarchic implosion, now notch up terror death statistics equal to ours.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Suicide bombings and jihadist rage rack up a 100 bodies a month now, while the political centre continues to lose its grip on the country. After Lal Masjid, which festered like an open sore in the heart of the capital, the reaction from the tribal badlands, as they have come to be known, is rocking the ranks of the one institution that was famous for withstanding all such shocks. Yet, very little has been said about the fact that no institution, including the steel-frame of the Pakistan Army is secure even in their trenches, from such open attack. Even more disturbing is the absence of an institutional response from either General Musharraf or his surrogates in government to the series of abductions of the militaryâ€™s soldiers and paramilitary forces, which should have sent red-alert signals to all policy makers.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Nothing surfaces overnight, particularly messages signed in the language of terror. So why are these abductions or surrenders, whatever they are labelled, so critical to security strategy? What links do they have with the overall state of political instability in the country? And what is theÂ nature of the confrontation, as well as the changing tactics employed by the militants?
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â In order to understand it, let’s just look at the nature of this transmogrifying beast. Firstly, the army abductions are non-discriminatory in nature. They are not restricted to junior level officers. The 19 Frontier Corps militiamen abducted fromSouth Wazirirstanin August this year, included a senior officer, and a political tehsildar. The 280 soldiersÂ abducted late last month included a colonel and nine other officers. Similarly, on September 1, another 10 FC Corps, paramilitary soldiers and a major were kidnapped in FATA’s Mohmand agency. These are clear proof of the growing confidence of the militants who now use abduction as an effective way of pressing the regime to submit to their demands.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Secondly, the attacks now carry a clear political as well as violent message. The fearlessness of the militants stems from the “success” of the abduction of the FC militiamen in the second week of August. During the time that they held down the soldiers, the militants released a video titled ‘Revenge,’ exposing the brutal beheading of one of the abducted soldiers at the hands of a teenaged boy. The video ran a commentary that ended on questions related to the ‘legitimacy’ of the Jamia Hafsa operation, the detention of AQ Khan, the Balochistan operation and the forced disappearance of civilians.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Thirdly, the attacks now focus increasingly on breaking down the confidence and the resolve of the enemy. If the purpose of the video was to shock the audience, it did the job. According to media reports, it took a small group of Taliban fighters to force a surrender of 280 armed soldiers merely by blocking their convoy. Apparently, not a single bullet was fired by crack soldiers in the world’s sixth largest army. Yet while the much cited Pakhtun factor is a serious one, when the pull of blood blocks action on compatriots from a largely Pakhtun-Punjabi army, it can never fully account for the loss of will this signifies.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Coupled with the recent abductions, the grisly September killings of 15 soldiers inNorth Waziristansend a deeply troubling message about the perceived morale of the army. The fact that by July this year, the death toll of Pakistani soldiers in the area had reportedly reached 1000, since 2004 when the campaign to control terrorists’ movement along the Afghan border started, is demoralising in itself. According to independent sources, the figure runs between 1000-3000, while thousands have been injured.Â The casualties on the national level are far more shocking. In the last two months alone, Pakistani security forces (military, paramilitary, rangers and police) have lost 229 personnel in various clashes, and attacks by the militants. As the twin attacks onRawalpindi, and later Tarbela show, high security zones no longer deter suicide attackers.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Fourthly, and equally problematically, is the fact that the militants now operate with clear goals that footprint the pattern of international terrorist missions. To secure the release of 18 abducted soldiers, the militants reportedly extracted the release of 10 suspects who were in government custody. Sources said other demands of the militants included abolition of bunkers and checkposts from Shin Ser, Ghut Ser and Nawaz Kot areas. In the FATA too, the demands seek to cut a wide swathe into the heart of the state’s advances and basically expect a return to the Sararogha Agreement of February 2005. This seeks general amnesty for Baitullah Mehsud , the removal of army check posts and patrol advances in the Mehsud-dominated area ofSouth Waziristan.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Clearly, resurgent militants now feel the state is in retreat, and they are in a position to make short and long-term demands. It also speaks volumes aboutÂ their claim on certain areas as pitted stubbornly outside state remit. Until a few years ago such areas were still under the protection of tribal maliks, but are now infiltrated by the more reactionary Taliban. In areas like Swat, Tank, DI Khan, the Taliban started with clampdowns on women, music and culture, yet in all cases the nature of their demands shifted seamlessly from the social to the territorialÂ and political.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â None of this of course, covers the release of our captured jawans who continue to beÂ held hostage in remote areas by theirÂ tribal captors. The information curtain on this episode is very dense, but reports say that after releasing a group of 26, the militants have made the release of the rest conditional on several heavy demands. Here too, the negotiations run like the demands of one state from another: the withdrawal of troops from “their” areas, the removal of military check posts and the release of 20 colleagues held by law-enforcement agencies on charges of terrorism from various operations.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â All of the above signals the death rattle of a long, bloody struggle between a regime that is distracted by its own survival stakes, and armed challengers who have grafted a modern terrorist methodology onto a reactionary, dogmatic tribalism. The problem is compounded by the reality that the government has lost its legitimacy as either home-grown or accountable, and has therefore forfeited on the credibility battle so critical for domestic support in such a project.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â While an elected civilian government will also be challenged with the fallout of long institutional neglect of the issues involved, domestic support will feed the package of development and security responses both needed to deal with such a complex quagmire. Clear policies will send clear signals and elicit better outcomes.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â The last time the army attacked the FATA in 2004, more than 700 soldiers were killed. The attack also left dozens of Pashtun soldiers and Frontier Corps men deserted. A few army helicopter pilots reportedly refused to bomb their own fellow citizens. This shows that the Musharraf regime’s strategy of dealing with tribal discontent and militant ire has not worked for a while. But neither has his strategy of co-opting the JUI, or subverting the spirit of the Constitution, to stay on forever holding all offices. What the Pakistan Army needs, as of yesterday, is a full-time professional COAS while Pakistan needs a free and fair election where the agencies stay out of the game. Everything will not neatly fall into place, but it will be a start on the right track.
Sherry Rehman is a Member of the National Assembly and Central Information Secretary of the Pakistan Peoples Party