Sunday, June 1, 2014

Daily Times Editorial June 1, 2014

The die is cast A top-level meeting of the civilian and military leadership was held on Friday, presided over by Prime Minister (PM) Nawaz Sharif. While the PM had things to share regarding his visit to India, COAS General Raheel Sharif briefed the meeting on his recent visits to Quetta and FATA. In Quetta, while addressing officers at the Staff and Command College, the COAS had reiterated his confidence that the Pakistan army was fully prepared to defeat any threat. The outcome of the top level meeting was to revisit the strategy against terrorism, particularly in the light of the situation in North Waziristan (NW), the split in the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), and the reported ‘going rogue’ of a pro-government militant, Hafiz Gul Bahadur. On the first, recent air strikes and troop assaults on militants’ hideouts have yielded at least 70 militants and some of their commanders killed, while local reports say the casualties are closer to 100 and include women and children. Lack of media access to the area hinders independent confirmation of such contradictory claims. Nevertheless, the pain inflicted by the assaults in retaliation for terrorist acts has persuaded Hafiz Gul Bahadur’s group to issue a pamphlet asking people to abandon contacts and links with the government authorities and move with their families closer to the Afghan border from where they will find easier escape in the event of what the group says is an expected military offensive on NW. It is interesting to note that Hafiz Gul Bahadur, who has traditionally been described as a pro-government militant, accuses the military of in all respects tearing up the 2007 peace accord through its recent attacks, some of which have clearly struck either members of his group or their sympathisers. Meanwhile Maulana Fazlur Rehman continues to plough his own furrow in not only predicting a military offensive in NW, which he says will lead to all out war, but plugging his favourite theme of peace talks with the militants through a tribal jirga. It was the government’s refusal to countenance this suggestion, he says, that persuaded his party to withdraw from the peace talks process between the government and the TTP. Of course, as we have argued consistently in this space, that talks process is arguably well on the way to hitting a dead end, if not already dead in the water. Inherently, the government’s strategy of putting all its eggs in the talks basket (backed, ironically it must be said, by the All Parties Conference consensus) failed to see or acknowledge the very real obstacles in the way of a negotiated peace settlement with the TTP since there was little if any common ground between the respective positions of each side, the government insisting on adherence to the constitution (and by implication the democratic system under its umbrella) and the TTP rejecting this and insisting on their version of sharia.

The stop-go talks process seems finally to have ground to a halt, not the least because under the policy of retaliation, each terrorist act has been met by a stinging assault by the armed forces, at least since General Raheel Sharif has taken over the army’s command. The government’s strategy of ‘restraint, confinement, retaliation’ seems still to hold the field, although the last, retaliation, has set off its own dynamic on the ground, further eroding the chances of the talks succeeding. There still appears to be some reluctance to launch an all out assault in NW though, not the least because of apprehensions that it would fuel terrorist acts throughout the country and lead to the fresh internal displacement of thousands of people. Given that the authorities are still struggling with the pending issue of the Tirah Valley internally displaced people, not to mention the earlier South Waziristan displaced, a fresh exodus of people fleeing the fighting would further strain the resources and capability to manage of the authorities. That perhaps is why targeted retaliatory precision strikes, bringing more accurate air power into play, are considered the least cost and preferred option so far. However, if the ‘defection’ of the Sajna group of Mehsuds from the TTP may be considered a fruit of the nuanced strategy of the government, Hafiz Gul Bahadur’s going rogue reflects the complexity and protracted nature of the fight against armed terrorist groups in FATA.

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