The Battle for Bajaur
By Imtiaz Gul
Weekly Pulse, Islamabad October 09, 2008
The battle for Bajaur is raging. It is a test case for Pakistan's capability to regain control of the embattled agency, as put by Maj-Gen Tariq Khan, the inspector general of the Frontier Corps.
Almost round the clock curfew in some parts of the administrative headquarters, Khaar, and several suburbs restricts common peoples' movement and thus most of the area presents a deserted look.
Thunder of the heavy machine gun fire from Cobra helicopters greeted us when we reached Tangkhatta, a suburb of the Khaar town; the village on the Khaar-Peshawar road, had served as a vintage for the militants to ambush and hit at the army and government vehicles.
On September 11, the army, which had joined the FC operations a week ago, took the village and a big compound along the road, typical village lay out with small corridors connecting several rooms and front yards; a hen strolled around with her chickens, and over a dozen pigeons were singing to each other, apparently unmindful of the battle that had taken many lives on that fateful day. Yet an uncapped salt jar, open cooking oil bottles, scattered quilts and clothes bore witness to the bloody battle that took place here.
"Miscreants ambushed us thrice on that day," recalled Col Javed Baloch, who had led the battle. Taliban laid the siege around them every time they attempted to retrieve the bodies of soldiers and Maj Asad Akbar. We had to spend the entire night due to the siege as we were caught between the militants all around. Air support through the cobra helicopters eventually forced the Taliban to retreat.
The choppers kept pounding militant positions as we rummaged through the shelled compound, surrounded by maize fields all around. Most of the crop is also gone because of the hostilities that began with the August 6 FC operation. It forced out almost 42,000 families, many of whom had returned with the advent of Ramazan and the announcement of a ceasefire by the militants.
"Most of the families had to flee again because the ceasefire never held," said one Irfan Salarzai, a local shopkeeper. Some tribal elders were also bitter about the loss of innocent civilians. They think the army spared influential Taliban militants by design. The top hierarchy is reportedly sheltering in the hostile and topographically Mamund valley.
But the army's response to such suspicions is quite frank; these militants simply dissolve into local population after striking at targets, Gen Tariq Khan explained. They use residential compounds and markets as their defence mechanism, Gen Khan explained at the headquarters of the Bajaur Scouts, which is part of the FC.
Despite several reversals and heavy losses, militants are using everything they have to hold their ground. Security officials are surprised by the combat tactics and the stiff resistance the battle-hardened fighters are offering.
Military officials interpret this as a proof that Al-Qaeda might be deeply in cahoots with local Taliban, who are frequently using improvised explosive devices, the suicide jackets being the most important and lethal weapon. It is not a rag-tag militia we are pitched against. They are fighting like an organised and well-trained army, using trenches and tunnels for vintage attacks and shelters.
Officials also speak of "reverse infiltration". Intelligence officials claim to have detected close to 200 armed men crossing from Afghanistan's eastern Kunar province into Bajaur, which seems to have attracted militants from other tribal regions, from across the border as well as "perhaps" from Iraq.
Pakistani officials also read and watch news about infiltration from the Pakistani regions into Afghanistan; they can track down all the movement from our side of the Durand Line, said one of the officers. Why can’t they intercept and stop those who return to Waziristan after "attacks inside Afghanistan", or those attempting to cross into Bajaur, he asked.
Officials are also bewildered over the assistance that the Shias in Kurram Agency got from across the border. Intelligence officials say as many as 35 miscreants of foreign origin are in their custody.
Generally, the army seems to have moved cautiously to regain lost territories but not without civilian casualties, which it fears parties like Jamaat-i-Islami, which has a strong political base in Bajaur, might exploit and stoke commotion over loss of life.
The Jamaat has had close ties with Gulbadin Hekmatyar's Hizb-i-Islami (which operates in Kunar) — and its former minister Sirajul Haq has been seen attending funerals of people killed in military or missile strikes.
"We must ask a fundamental question," quipped a very senior general privy to the operations. "Is there a national consensus on what we are doing? Do we understand that the war for Bajaur can be a war for Pakistan's survival?"
Surrounded by Malakand in the east, by Dir and Swat in the north-east, Mohmand in the south and Kunar in the west, Bajaur has become strategically and politically critical for Pakistani army's resolve to regain control over.
Bajaur provides the militants of Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) a perfect haven, which they can use on both sides of the border through the four passes that connect it with Afghanistan.
A lot stands at stake for the Taliban. "If they lose here, they lose everything," Gen Khan told us, while underscoring the importance of Bajaur, which he believes stood on the verge of declaring independence before the August 6 operation was launched.
Until then, Taliban were running a parallel administration, issuing administrative orders to government officials, dispensing Sharia justice, and coercing locals into obedience and compliance. They seemed embarked on the mission of securing Bajaur as Amaraate Islami. Based on what one hears and sees, Bajaur has emerged as the second-most significant stronghold of the militants after Waziristan.
To what extent do the continuing army operation take the sting out of Maulvi Faqir Muhammad, the deputy to Baitullah Mehsud's Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, or whether Maulana Fazlullah, who draws strength and support in large measure from Bajaur, can be disarmed and totally neutralized, would largely depend on the unanimity within the ruling elite – politicians and the generals.
Right now, Salarzai Lashkar – army – makes headlines. Officials believe these Lashkars offer an effective mechanism to contain and eventually whittle down the Taliban threat. Lashkars in the Khyber Agency and Darra Adam Khel have also scored some successes. Obviously, after a very long time, the authorities realized that the Taliban threat needed a local antidote i.e. the local community must be mobilized to confront wily militants. As far as Bajaur is concerned, the Lashkar seems to have worked. But perpetuation of such policies, with unequivocal support of the civilian and military administration is the prerequisite for durable solutions. It not only requires funding but also a lot of pro-active advocacy among tribesmen, most of whom are fed up with the insurgency.
Most importantly, the army and the civilian administration must work hard to erase the deep-seated public perception that "intelligence agencies are still supporting Taliban, or at least some of them".
Wherever you go, and this I am stating based on hundreds of personal intercepts, FATA people blame the so-called Talibanisation and its strength on the perceived nexus between the militants and the intelligence agencies.
While it was true for Waziristan and Kashmir, until a couple of years ago, new geo-strategic compulsions have broken this nexus, and the agencies themselves are under attack. Taliban put down or executed at least 200 alleged intelligence informers and agents in the last five years or so.
Also, pointed questions render the doubtful tribesmen speechless. Asked if the ISI and other affiliates would undermine their own army by supporting those militants who are attacking the army and government, people in tribal areas don't have a rationale answer.
Both the government as well as the military establishment must therefore work overtime, and enlist support of leading tribesmen to remove the perception on the military-mulla-militant-nexus. Although late, it is still not too late to take all political stakeholders on board, agree on a strategy that can be sold to the people as made inside the Pakistani parliament, and not adopted under the dictates of Washington.
(The author heads the independent Centre for Research and Security Studies, Islamabad.