FATA again under fire
By Imtiaz Gul
Weekly Pulse, Islamabad January 11, 2008
Prescript: Local Taliban are gradually converging on the Peshawar valley from Darra Adam Khel, Mohmand, Khyber agency as well as the Malakand region. The ultimate objective: lay a Taliban siege around the city that serves as the gateway to the Pak-Afghan border as well as the seven embattled tribal agencies.
Current Scenario: With ominous clouds gathering over FATA from all over, the General Ali Jan Aurakzai had to step down from governorship. His departure is attributed to differences with the centre and the military high command over the handling of situation in the tribal areas. One of the conflicts arose allegedly over the strategy as to how to handle Baitullah Mehsud. Islamabad apparently favoured hot pursuit, while Aurakzai remained opposed to open confrontation. He thought this would expose Pakistan Army to unforeseen hostilities by the Mehsud tribe, whose members and warriors are meanwhile leading Maulvi Fazlullah's "phantom" fighters in Malakand, Swat and Kurram.
US-led Western friends have long been unhappy with the deals that Aurakzai helped to broker, including the September 2006 agreement between government and militants in North Waziristan. Many had interpreted this as handing over the region to the Taliban militants. The accord finally fell for amid mutual allegations of violations by both sides.
Following on the heels of governor’s departure, The New York Times reported that the US administration is considering a proposal to give more powers to the Central Intelligence Agency – CIA -- and the military to conduct aggressive covert operations in Pakistan's tribal areas. The proposal followed US intelligence reports that al Qaeda and the Taliban are “intensifying efforts to destabilise the Pakistani government.”
US Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and a number of President Bush’s top national security advisers met at the White House on Friday to discuss the proposal, which was part of a broad reassessment of American strategy after the assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, The New York Times said, adding several participants argued that the threat to the government of President Pervez Musharraf was now so grave that both Mr Musharraf and Pakistan's new military leadership were likely to give the US more latitude.
Democratic presidential hopefuls including Hilary Clinton and Bill Richardson also voiced similar concerns, pleading for a more vigorous US-British role in the Taliban and al Qaeda hunt. They also pin their hopes on the new chief of army staff General Kayani.
“Kayani has a strong recognition that things haven't worked,” the Associated Press agency quoted one senior military official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic, as saying. “He recognises the level of competence and proficiency” of Pakistan’s forces “will need attention,” the official said.
The concerns are getting louder with the apprehension that the growing religious insurgency in the tribal areas and the adjacent Malakand and Swat regions might undermine not only Pervez Musharraf but also the US interests in the region.
That is why the Pentagon seeks greater authority to conduct operations while coordinating with the State Department. Adm Eric Olson, head of US Special Operations Command, visited Pakistan last month and discussed with President Pervez Musharraf and senior military leaders how else the US military can assist in countering “a very complex insurgency,” one military official said.
Currently, the New York Times says, the main US counterinsurgency effort in Pakistan consists of a multiyear package of economic development and military assistance that is now beginning to be implemented. The military component aims to bolster training and equipment for Pakistan’s Frontier Corps, which operates in the tribal areas, and stepping up training of elite Pakistani Army units by US Special Forces. At least 50 special Marines are currently -- publicly -- based in Pakistan, while an agreement late last year stipulates at least doubling of these numbers in the months to come.
Foreign Ministry in Islamabad dismissed as “speculative” a story in the New York Times saying US President George W Bush's top security officials discussed a proposal Friday to deploy US troops to pursue militants along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.
“We are very clear. Nobody is going to be allowed to do anything here,” said Maj Gen Waheed Arshad, the top spokesperson for Pakistan Army. “No foreign forces will be allowed to operate inside Pakistan.”
US media speculates that the reported White House discussions on the tribal areas might also be driven by a desire for another effort to capture or kill Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri.
Under current US laws, most counter terrorism operations in Pakistan have to be conducted by the CIA. In Afghanistan the military can take the lead.
The legal status would not change if the administration decided to act more aggressively. However, if the CIA were given broader authority, it could call for help from the military, or deputise some Special Operations forces to act under the authority of the agency.
Post-Script: Intelligence and security officials in the tribal agencies as well as Peshawar increasingly smell rat in the warnings and statements emanating from Washington. They also view with skepticism the vows out of the General Headquarters (GHQ) that the fight against Taliban militants will be taken to its logical end -- come what may.
“Our officials have played into the hands of the American agencies by opting for the ‘tough option’,” said a senior intelligence official in Peshawar.
Our crackdown on people in the Waziristan region means the terror operatives, unable to cross the border, have now diverted their human bombers to Pakistan, said the official.
He believes that in order to succeed in Afghanistan and to convince their people of their effectiveness, the American political and military establishments have forced the Pakistani troops into strict vigilance of the border. But that means more and more people are heading towards to settled Pakistani cities to cause death and destruction. The official presented the deaths on Monday and Tuesday in Waziristan as well as attacks on military installations in other adjacent areas as the proof for the successful US strategy.
One may take this assertion with a pinch of salt but other government officials and common citizens in the provincial capital are also apprehensive of the “approaching Taliban.”
Some are suggesting establishing military-police check posts in the periphery of Peshawar to stop the impending invasion. Some are asking for taking the fight to the strongholds of the militants. But, said a government official, most police and security officials fear for life. The majority is reluctant in moving out of the town to confront the Taliban. They don’t want to turn themselves into obvious targets for Taliban snipers and bombers.