Escalating US proxy war in Pakistan

By Ray Fulcher

Since late April, more than 15,000 Pakistani troops have engaged militarily with 3000-4000 Taliban fighters in Pakistan’s Swat valley in North-West Frontier Province. The fighting has displaced more than 1 million civilians, driving the total number of internal refugees from Swat to more than 2 million. The refugee crisis began last year when the Taliban began a terror campaign to impose their version of Sharia law and retain control of the region.

The signing of the “Malakand accord” between the Pakistani government and the Taliban on February 16 wrote Sharia into the local law codes. All of Pakistan’s mainstream political parties — the Pakistan People’s Party, the Muslim League (Nawaz) and the Awami National Party — supported the accord. But it did not stop the Taliban’s reign of terror. Attacks on political opponents, government officials and offices and girls’ schools continued. Girls were attacked for not wearing the burkha and men for not having sufficiently long beards. Some local tribesmen have mounted armed resistance, but their struggle has been hampered by weapons inferior to those of the Taliban. The Pakistani military’s offensive and the subsequent mass displacement of tribal peoples has further obstructed resistance.

Indiscriminate offensive

Although the army is targeting the Taliban in this operation (unlike former offensives into the region ostensibly against the militants), its methods are causing more harm to the civilian population than to the Taliban. According to residents interviewed by Saeed Shah of McClatchy Newspapers on May 4, the army’s assault is “flattening villages, killing civilians and sending thousands of farmers and villagers fleeing from their homes”. One resident told Shah: “We didn’t see any Taliban; they are up in the mountains, yet the army flattens our villages”.

Washington orchestrated the latest offensive but has expressed public concern regarding the army’s tactics. Admiral Michael Mullen, head of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters on April 27 that, in recent years, the Pakistani army had undertaken “bursts of fighting” against insurgents, but this was “not sustained” by follow-up measures. He spoke of the need for a “hold and build aspect” to military operations. According to Saeed Shah, US officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, told him that the Pakistani army is “just destroying stuff. They have zero ability to deliver [aid] services” and “They hold villages completely accountable for the actions of a few”. In the village of Kawga, for instance, the military had destroyed 80 of the 400 houses, according to local residents.

On the weekend of May 23-24, the military operations moved from rural areas of the valley to its major town, Mingora. Most residents fled, but an estimated 20,000 civilians remain in the fortified town, held by the Taliban. The move into urban areas threatens to involve bloody street fighting, with high civilian casualties and mass destruction of civilian infrastructure. Pakistani army spokesperson Major-General Athar Abbas said on May 25, “The pace of the operation will be painfully slow. So be patient. But the operation has started, and, God willing, we are going to take it to a logical conclusion.”

Pakistani army and Islamic militants

The Pakistani military has held direct power for 33 of Pakistan’s 60 years and wields indirect control during the brief periods of civilian rule. Washington has long been pressuring Islamabad to destroy Taliban bases inside Pakistan and has been frustrated by the military’s seeming reluctance to engage them.

On October 14, Washington leaked a national intelligence estimate that complained that “the Pakistani military is reluctant to launch an all-out campaign against the Islamists”. Indeed, the military waited 25 days after the Taliban swept from Swat into Buner (in the Malakand district) before responding. This delay allowed the Taliban to entrench themselves and take hostage 2000 villagers from the Pir Baba area in northern Buner. Buner is a strong anti-Taliban region, which had raised its own militia to oppose the Taliban. But soon after the invasion of Buner, the government ordered all anti-Taliban militias in the Malakand district to disband.

In the past three years, the military has mounted three separate operations against the Taliban in Swat but has failed to win control of the region or suppress Islamist operations. Taliban terrorism has escalated, and their political control has expanded.

The military’s reluctance derives from its ambiguous relationship with political Islam. While not subscribing to any one ideology, the military sees itself as the protector of the Pakistani Islamic state, so its interests have often coincided with those of the jihadist groups. The military established radical Islamic militias to help fight India over Kashmir. The army also encouraged the spread of Islamism in the Afghan border regions in order to suppress Pashtun nationalism. The military-linked Inter-Services Intelligence agency helped secure the Taliban’s 1993 victory in Kabul, with the assistance of US funds.

US Afghanistan-Pakistan policy

Although the army is targeting the Taliban and although all three mainstream parties support the offensive, the latest operation is essentially another half-hearted action brought about by pressure from Washington. The Taliban cannot be defeated in one province while remaining, as they do, under protection of the military in Punjab and Sindh. The military retains its doctrine of using jihadist forces for “strategic depth” in Afghanistan and against India.

The military was compelled to engage the Taliban in Swat because the US threatened to escalate its military activity inside Pakistan’s borders. Washington has made it clear that it sees Pakistan as part of the front line in its war in Afghanistan, because the Taliban use their bases in Pakistan border territories to launch attacks into Afghanistan. The US special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, told a congressional committee on April 28: “We need to put the most heavy possible pressure on our friends in Pakistan to join us in the fight against the Taliban and its allies” and “We cannot succeed in Afghanistan without Pakistan’s support and involvement”. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and war secretary Robert Gates, in testimony before the Senate appropriations committee on April 30, put the Obama administration’s case for bolstering the Pakistan military’s capabilities to confront Islamic militants. Gates pushed the committee for US$400 million under the Pakistan Counterinsurgency Capability Fund to assist the military to fight insurgents in Afghan border areas. He said that the money “is a vital element of the president’s new Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy”. Clinton backed this argument, stating, “Success in Afghanistan depends on success in Pakistan”.

Pakistan’s military has a record of using border “counter-insurgency” operations as cover for suppressing political dissent and imposing its control over autonomous tribal areas. For instance, in October 2008, General Kayani sought approval from the new civilian government for a major anti-insurgency crackdown. This political cover was duly delivered on October 22, when all 16 parliamentary parties endorsed a new resolution for a national response to terrorism. Kayani welcomed the resolution, saying Pakistan’s role in the so-called War on Terror “is indicative of an emerging consensus in Pakistan that terrorism has to be squarely addressed with the help of the people”. The resolution gave the green light for military occupation of the semi-autonomous tribal regions of North-West Frontier Province.

Repeated attacks

The US threat to extend its operations further into Pakistan if that country does not contribute to attaining US “success” is not an idle one. Between August and October 2008, the US military launched 12 attacks from Afghanistan against the Taliban border stronghold of Bajur in Pakistan, prompting the Pakistanis to launch their own offensive in the area to capture the key town of Loi Sam from the Taliban. US troops invaded a South Waziristan village, killing 20 “suspected terrorists”, including women and children, on September 3.

Unsurprisingly, the US incursions incensed public opinion in Pakistan and assisted the recruiting drive of the Taliban, especially in the border regions. In the weeks following the September 3 attack, the US stepped up air strikes by pilotless “drones” and invaded the territory with ground troops four times. At least 700 people have been killed by drone attacks in Pakistan since 2006. These attacks didn’t stop with the election of Barack Obama: 164 Pakistanis have been killed in 14 pilotless drone attacks in the four months of Obama’s presidency. Obama himself has articulated Washington’s intention to continue pressuring Pakistan militarily. He told a April 29 press conference: “We want to respect their sovereignty, but we also recognize that we have huge strategic interests, huge national security interests in making sure that Pakistan is stable and that you don’t end up having a nuclear-armed militant state.”