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Violence: no end in sight

The US and its allies need to review the level of their military engagement in a conflict that is primarily political.

By Imtiaz Gul

DAWN Jan 05, 2010

FOR Pakistanis, the year 2010 couldn’t have dawned in a worse way; at least three people lost their lives in a US drone attack on a North Waziristan village, as other places were still celebrating the advent of the new year.

Hours later, a suicide bomber blew himself up by ramming a car packed with at least 300 kgs of explosives killing some 90 people watching a volleyball match in Lakki Marwat. Around the same time, away in the northern tribal agency of Bajaur, six people, including an anti-Taliban tribal elder, were killed when a remote-controlled bomb exploded in the Salarzai Mandal area.

The death and destruction was a continuation of the events of the previous year that closed with an attack on an Ashura procession in Karachi killing more than 40 and injuring scores of others. As if the human damage were not enough, a violent wave of arson and pillage followed the blast, resulting in shops being gutted and a loss of billions of rupees.

While controversy surrounds the mode of the attack — reports indicate a remote-controlled device may have been used — if the Ashura attack was indeed caused by a suicide bomber, it would be the 80th such attack in addition to some 500 bomb explosions and improvised explosive devices’ (IEDs) detonations, largely in the Frontier and Fata regions.

Until 2001, Pakistan had not experienced suicide strikes. By the end of 2009, Pakistan had witnessed such attacks as never before. In 2007, it was one suicide attack a week; 2008 saw more than 60 attacks and last year, some 80 bombers either walked or drove explosive-laden vehicles into often crowded places including mosques, markets and security installations to wreak death and destruction. Last year’s toll also took the total number of suicide strikes since March 2002 to almost 220. The civilian casualty figure for the last eight years has reached a staggering 25,000 that includes militants, police, military personnel and civilians.

Between July 2008 and end-December 2009 alone, Pakistan is believed to have lost about 3,600 civilians and more than 1,300 security personnel in terror strikes. Soon after President Barack Obama unveiled his AfPak strategy on March 27, 2009, the battle between the USled coalition forces, including those of Pakistan, and the radical militants led by Al Qaeda moved to new levels, unleashing a string of suicide attacks wreaking destruction in the northwest as well as in Islamabad, Rawalpindi and Lahore.

The March commando-style attacks first on the Sri Lankan cricket team and then on the Manawan Police Training Academy in Lahore, the Oct 10 raid on GHQ and the Dec 4 surprise assault on the Parade Lane Mosque in Rawalpindi bore the hallmarks of fidayeen attacks that the Lashkar-i-Taiba had carried out in Indian-administered Kashmir. The same technique was applied to the ISI facility in Multan later. It underscored the observation that a sophisticated campaign of violence was under way to inflict damage on the Pakistani security apparatus and spread terror all over Pakistan.

Thus the picture of this graph of violence in the context of US President Barack Obama’s AfPak policy announced last March assumes importance. Although it had promised a new beginning, within two weeks of this announcement Pakistan experienced a dramatic surge in violence; from Waziristan to Peshawar, from Lahore to Islamabad and Chakwal. Scores perished either in suicide attacks or drone strikes. The primary target of the suicide bombers was either the police or paramilitary forces, while the drone-fired Hellfire missiles were meant to target Al Qaeda operatives in hiding in various pockets of Fata.

These bombings shook the entire nation, with Peshawar having endured some 20 of the 80 suicide attacks last year. Peshawar and its surrounding towns are still bearing the brunt, with the last quarter of 2009 soaked in blood as suicide bombers struck about a dozen times in reaction to the operations in Swat and South Waziristan. Despite the death of Baitullah Mehsud, the TTP has kept up the pressure, claiming responsibility for almost every attack.

The vicious spiral of violence suggests that use of force only fuels the insurgency. That is why the US and its allies, including the embattled Pakistani government, need to review the level of their military engagement in a conflict that is primarily political and requires a politically guided engagement with all the stakeholders.

While on the tactical level, groups such as the TTP must be dealt with an iron hand, the government needs political strategies for the medium and long term to create local ownership of the structures that are being put in place following the military operation. The military can only do the fire-fighting. Lasting peace and rehabilitation has to come from the civilian administration and politicians.

(The author heads the independent Centre for Research and Security Studies, Islamabad. And the author of a recent Penguin publication “The Al-Qaeda Connection – Taliban and Terror in Tribal Areas.”

Email: imtiaz@crss.pk