Popular predators

The unpopularity of US drone strikes has been exaggerated
Pakistani politicians fume and rant against US unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) strikes against al-Qaeda and Taliban targets in the tribal areas in Pakistan’s North-west. The outrage is a charade, at least for the politicians in government, because some of the UAVs are operating out air bases in Pakistan, ostensibly with the knowledge and permission of the Pakistani government.

But a survey of the affected populations in the tribal areas, conducted by the Aryana Institute for Regional Research and Advocacy (AIRRA), a local think-tank, found that the people do not quite share the same level of outrage.

The popular notion outside the Pakhtun belt that a large majority of the local population supports the Taliban movement lacks substance. The notion that anti-Americanism in the region has not increased due to drone attacks is rejected. The study supports the notion that a large majority of the people in the Pakhtun belt wants to be incorporated with the state and wants to integrate with the rest of the world.

    —Do you see drone attacks bringing about fear and terror in the common people? (Yes 45%, No 55%)
    —Do you think the drones are accurate in their strikes? (Yes 52%, No 48%)
    —Do you think anti-American feelings in the area increased due to drone attacks recently? (Yes 42%, No 58%)
    —Should Pakistan military carry out targeted strikes at the militant organisations? (Yes 70%, No 30%)
    —Do the militant organisations get damaged due to drone attacks?
    (Yes 60%, No 40%)[Farhat Taj/The News]

AIRRA claims that it “has been envisioned to remain independent, both ideologically and organizationally”. If the results any reflection of this vision, then they should deflate the displays of righteousness that Pakistani politicians put up, and indeed, weaken their hand while negotiating with their US counterparts.

Surrendering Swat

Pakistan’s strategic retreat will be irreversible…unless the military establishment is transformed

First the facts: the Pakistani government has struck a deal with Maulana Sufi Mohammed, who heads an organisation called the Tanzim Nifaz Shariat-e-Muhammadi (TNSM) to impose Nizam-e-Adl regulations, which are based on Sharia law, in the Malakand Division of the North West Frontier Province (NWFP). This region consists of Swat and a few other districts where the Pakistani army has been unable and unwilling to take on the Islamist militants who have effective control. But it is not Mr Sufi Mohammed’s TNSM that holds sway—rather, it is his Maulana Fazlullah’s militia, including the Shaheen Commando Force, affiliated to Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) that has imposed a reign of terror in Swat. And to spice up this Frontier version of Santa Barbara, Mr Fazlullah is Mr Sufi Mohammed’s son-in-law.

It is the third time in the last year that the the Pakistani government is attempting to strike a deal with the father-in-law in order to get the son-in-law to cease violence. It has failed twice—because Mr Fazlullah and Swat are pieces on a larger chessboard that also includes, among others, Baitullah Mehsud and Waziristan. These two militant leaders have been able to whipsaw the half-hearted attempts by the Pakistani state machinery into submission.

And a little background: The erstwhile princely state of Swat, headed by the Wali, had a traditional justice system based on an admixture of tribal and Islamic laws. This was abolished when Swat was integrated into Pakistan in 1969—and was replaced by a corrupt, tardy and unpopular bureaucratic system under the Provincially Administered Tribal Areas (PATA) regulations. General Zia-ul Haq’s Islamisation project and the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan got mixed up with the popular resentment against a failed judicial-administrative system. Mr Sufi Mohammed’s TNSM began as protest movement against the PATA regulations, which naturally took the shape of a call for Sharia. In 1993, Pakistan’s Supreme Court ruled against the PATA regulations. You would think that some other system came into effect. But it didn’t. A judicial vacuum followed—nobody bothered with trifling matters like a proper judicial system for the people of Swat and its neighbouring districts.

There have been previous announcements of the imposition of Nizam-e-Adl in Swat, but it is unclear if the people’s need for a justice system, any justice system, was met. But the issue of a justice system is distinct from what Mr Fazlullah & Co are trying to establish. The Taliban agenda is to set up an Islamic state on the lines of Mullah Omar’s erstwhile regime in Kabul. Going by their electoral preference—for the secular Awami National Party—it is clear that the people of Swat don’t want that. But now that the Pakistani state has abandoned them, that’s likely to be what they are going to get. [Update: See Sepoy’s post]

Where does all this take us? Well, the fact that the Pakistani government had to settle for political realism within its boundaries suggests that it does not have the power to prevail over the TTP. The attempt to explain away its surrender as a tactical move is hogwash—unless the Pakistani military establishment undergoes a radical transformation, it is unlikely that the government will ever be able to reclaim the lost territories.

Strategically, the surrender will embolden the Taliban forces elsewhere. General Kayani was caught describing the Haqqani militia in Afghanistan as Pakistan’s “strategic assets”. As long as the military establishment continues to believe that the Taliban can be strategic assets it is only a matter of time before the Taliban hegemony crosses across the Indus into the Punjab province. K Subrahmanyam thinks that the Pakistani generals might not want to live under such a regime. But who knows what a combination of delusional thinking, radicalisation and political realism might lead to?

Tailpiece: It is touching to see an op-ed columnist describe Mr Sufi Mohammed as “a simple and peaceful man who does not preach violence except in the way of jihad against non- Muslims.”

Related Links: Swat in Pragati: Articles by Manan Ahmed & Ayesha Saeed

No direct military action against Pakistan

And this is not the time for irresponsible talk

Direct military strikes against Pakistan in retaliation for the terrorist attack on Mumbai are not in India’s interests. [See these posts] There is little chance of that happening. So voluble souls like NDTV’s Barkha Dutt must just shut up, to put it politely. The TV media has already displayed its mindlessness and lack of maturity in the irresponsible and insensitive manner in which it covered the anti-terrorist operations.

It risks doing far more damage by giving play to unfounded rumours, which could well be misinterpreted as the Indian government’s intentions. Such reports play into the hands of the Pakistani military establishment that is looking for half-an-excuse to get out of the difficult job of fighting the Taliban and Al-Qaeda along Pakistan’s Western frontier.

The myth of the unbeatable Pashtun

A question of superior force, superior tactics and resolve

Sushant Sareen’s piece on the psy-war in Afghanistan makes an important point:

Even more galling is the nonsense being peddled that this war is not winnable and that the Pashtun lands are the graveyards of empires past and present. Not only is this historically incorrect, it is also a self-created, self-serving and self perpetuated myth.

The fact is that the Pashtuns are eminently beatable and have been beaten plenty of times in the past. Alexander, Timur, Nadir Shah, Maharaja Ranjit Singh, and the British, all have beaten the Pashtuns and established order in the Pashtun lands. Lest it be forgotten, the Sikhs followed by the British had defeated the Pashtuns so comprehensively that for almost 150 years now, relative peace and order has prevailed in the Pashtun lands.

True, the British suffered the occasional setback but they eventually managed to subdue the Pashtun tribes. Had the British wanted they would have also continued to rule Afghanistan, only they didn’t find it worth their while and preferred to let it remain a buffer between India and Russia. The Russians too would never have been defeated had the Soviet economy not collapsed (and it didn’t collapse because of the war in Afghanistan) and had the Americans not pumped in weapons and money to back the so-called Mujahideen.

No doubt the Pashtuns are a very turbulent race. Not only have they crafted treachery into a fine art form, they have also used it to great effect in the way they fight against their rivals. But while they are terrific warriors for whom warfare is a way of life, they have always succumbed to superior force and superior tactics, not to mention the lure of money. The Pashtuns have never been known to stand against a well-disciplined, well-equipped, motivated, and equally ruthless force.

But a set-piece army is only partially useful against the Pashtuns; it must be backed by highly mobile troops who can chase the guerrillas and hunt them down. [Rediff]

Kill the invaders

Say the corps commanders of the Pakistani army?

Bruce Loudon of The Australian reports that the Pakistani army’s corps commanders have ordered their troops to retaliate against US troops crossing over into their territory.

What amounts to a dramatic order to “kill the invaders”, as one senior officer put it last night, was disclosed after the commanders—who control the army’s deployments at divisional level—met at their headquarters in the garrison city of Rawalpindi under the chairmanship of army chief and former ISI spy agency boss Ashfaq Kayani.[The Australian]

That is something if at all it is true. No other major news sources are reporting this, and there is no official announcement to this effect. So the dramatic order might have been intended for purposes of drama. In any case, these orders are not too useful against Predator strikes.

But it will be interesting to see what happens the next time US special forces conduct a raid into Pakistani territory.

Little Games

Connecting the dots in Waziristan, Afghanistan, Islamabad, Davos and London

The United States ‘offers’ to send special forces and military assistance to the Pakistani army fighting the Taliban militia in South Waziristan and other tribal areas. Politicians, pundits and even ordinary people around the world publicly express worries about Pakistan’s nuclear weapons falling into jihadi hands.

Baitullah Mehsud, until recently the anointed leader of the Pakistan Taliban, gives an interview to Al Jazeera, stating that it was the United States that posed a threat to Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, not he.

Around this time, Mullah Omar—he with only one eye—sacks Baitullah Mehsud, for attacking Pakistani forces instead focussing on the US-NATO troops on the Afghanistan side of the border.

General Musharraf is in Europe finding it hard going answering questions about his own role in Pakistan’s political crisis. Around this time, back home in Rawalpindi, General Khalid Kidwai, the most public face of Pakistan’s nuclear command, reassures the media on custodial control. And then, Pakistan announces that it has raised the state of alert over nuclear weapons.

So what’s happening?

Mullah Omar’s public signal—that Afghanistan should be the focus of the Taliban insurgency—indicates that he would rather not have US forces fighting on the Pakistan side of the border, sandwiching the insurgents. It also serves Musharraf’s interests. He can now tell the insistent Americans that their ‘help’ is less necessary now.

Baitullah Mehsud’s statement on the danger to Pakistan’s nuclear weapons sounds identical to what the Gul & Co faction of the military establishment would argue. The message is directed at the Pakistani people, but it is almost certain that the signal is also meant for external parties with an interest in the security of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons.

Here’s an hypothesis: Musharraf & Co and Mullah Omar’s Afghan Taliban have found reason to strengthen their long-standing alignment. The threat of US military intervention in Pakistan have compelled them to distance Gul & Co and the Baitullah-led Pashtuns on the Pakistani side. But this not a ‘hard’ split—for Mullah Omar & Co can’t do without help from the Pakistani side. And Baitullah Mehsud & Co can’t do without access to the lucrative drugs smuggling trade centred around Afghanistan.

That leaves us with the announcement about the raised alert levels. Why announce this publicly, at a time when General Kidwai & Co are playing down the risk of losing custodial control? Well, Musharraf probably reckons this kind of news will make European audiences more favourably disposed to his protestations of indispensability.

And now, the bird flu threat in NWFP

Peshawar and Mansehra in the spotlight again

People looking out for bird flu cases are sitting up, for it has emerged that the feared human-to-human transmission of the flu virus might have occured. Scott McPherson writes:

In one of the numerous Pakistani H5N1-related bird culls of the past few months, a veterinarian appears to have been exposed to the H5N1 avian flu virus last October. Remember that date. He then, by all appearances, transmitted the virus to one or more of his brothers. They died ten days apart, strongly suggesting a chain human-to-human transmission, precisely because of the lag times. If the two sons were infected by, say, eating a diseased chicken at the same dinner table, or even as leftovers, the infection incubation period — and therefore the deaths — would have occurred much more closely together.

But they didn’t, and the timetable gets really scary here. If the vet brother (A) gets infected in October during the cull, and one brother (B) dies on November 19 and the other brother (C) on November 29, there is reason to strongly suspect the infections were passed down like a daisy-chain. Human to human. Chain transmission. [Scott McPherson’s Web Presence]

The WHO and a US Navy team have been dispatched to probe the two or three clusters of the outbreak in Pakistan. Reports are unclear where exactly the outbreaks have occured, variously locating Abbotabad, Peshawar and Mansehra as the sites. (Related posts from Michael Coston’s Avian Flu Diary).