• Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Pakistan army hits back

Salman Haider

A  major operation by the Pakistan army has recently been conducted in the frontier areas bordering Afghanistan to try to control the militant groups that have so strongly established themselves there.

The frontier region has long been a haven for numerous groups of local and imported armed militants; they have been there for ages, seemingly a law unto themselves outside the reach of the regular administration, but recently they have become bold and confident enough to challenge the Pakistani state and have been prepared even to take on the Pakistan army, which regards itself as the chief prop and defender of the state.

The differences between militants and state having become unbridgeable, the Pakistan army resorted to armed action and used its array of modern weapons to destroy militant strongholds.

Official communiques reported the deaths of many rebels and the destruction of their bases, which are concealed deep within the rugged mountains.

In the drive against its foe, the army claims to have achieved what it set out to do but it is not certain at this stage that the power of the militants has been adequately curbed.

Nor should one ignore the deep ambiguity in the relations between the terrorists and the Pakistani establishment. Over the years the “jihadi” groups have been able to  find support from within Pakistan, both open and covert, that has enabled them to thrive even when they have spread terror and attacked civilian targets.

Despite repeated efforts at control, they have received support from important political elements more ready to conciliate than to oppose them, to try to bring them round through dialogue, not confrontation.

More damaging, many “jihadi” groups have been promoted and supported by hidden forces from within the security establishment, including the army, and have enjoyed immunity from interdiction.

To the mounting frustration of its friends and allies, the USA prominent among them, the Pakistani state and its armed forces have been unwilling to make a decisive intervention against the ever-strengthening jihadists, even though there has been the occasional crackdown when rebel defiance has become totally unconscionable, as in the storming of the Lal Masjid in Islamabad and the clearing out of openly defiant mullahs in Swat.

Until now, for a variety of reasons these interventions have not been pressed to a final conclusion; once an operation is concluded, rebel groups have been able to re-establish themselves and even regain a measure of public support, while official agencies have remained divided and obscure in their purposes and political leaders have been chary of pressing for confrontation with extremist groups that claim to be acting with religious authority.

It is only after the recent attacks on Pakistani airports, that have threatened to totally disrupt air links with the world, that the establishment in that country has felt compelled to act, urged on by public demand.

Even some of the inveterate critics of Pakistan's overweening military establishment have on this occasion supported the army crackdown in view of the seriousness of the challenge and have remained supportive despite the vast exodus of civilians fleeing from the military ingress into their towns and villages.

The army seems to have prevailed in its immediate purpose but the operation may not be finally concluded, and it remains to be seen how much of a blow has been administered to the militants. Some reports suggest that they scattered as the army advanced, maybe had been tipped off, and can return to the fray before long, so questions about the efficacy of the operation still remain.

These extremist groups that have caused such mayhem in Pakistan have been active too in neighbouring countries, especially India, and, to a lesser extent, Afghanistan.

India has been the special target and was the initial raison d'etre for the creation and setting up of many such groups so as to incite and promote militancy in Kashmir; only subsequently did they turn their attention to their own country. For India, the threat from such groups is a major security consideration and a constant preoccupation, requiring great vigilance and alertness.  Diplomatic effort to improve relations between the two countries has been hostage to the shadowy doings of terrorists and their hidden backers.

Pakistan has come to acquire what it must consider an unwanted reputation as not so much a victim but a source of terrorism and a safe haven for violent groups from many lands, far and near.

As yet it is not possible to say whether the military incursion into Pakistan's border areas represents what could become a sustained change of policy towards disruptive bodies like the Taliban and other similarly motivated groups.

Not much information has trickled out about the features of the operation, and what is available comes from official sources. Casualty figures are recounted, suggesting high rebel losses and light damage to the military.

Present claims will no doubt be re-assessed in time as fuller information from other sources becomes available. But it has been a major effort by the armed forces, which for the first time have entered the territory of North Waziristan district, where many armed groups have based themselves, the Haqqani group prominent among them and hitherto treated more as a useful cat's paw for an active policy in Afghanistan by Pak security agencies than as a target for the Pakistan security forces.

Nor has the establishment flinched at the large civilian displacement caused by the military operation though it would be unpopular and invite demands to cease and desist from the political opposition. So there could be indications that this time the attempt to come down on the militant groups trying to re-shape the border region, and extend their influence within the country as a whole, may be more determined than in the past.

If there is indeed such a development in Pakistan's handling of the militant groups within its territory, it could have a significant effect on the bilateral relationship with India. In the last few years many ways of improving relations have been discussed, between leaders and diplomats, and many positive ideas have been more or less agreed.

The security issue, however, has kept them apart and prevented easing of ties even on matters like enlarged trade that offer significant benefit to both sides. Should Pakistan now carry its campaign against its home-based terrorists to a conclusion, it would encourage better bilateral cooperation in many fields.

The two prime ministers have given positive indications about the future after their meeting at Modi's inauguration. Restraining the terrorists that have become Pakistan's plague could be an important step in taking matters forward.

The writer is India's former Foreign Secretary.

© The Statesman (India). All rights reserved. Reprinted by arrangement with Asia News Network.

Published: 12:00 am Saturday, July 26, 2014

TAGS: Pakistan

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