The response of the militants after the ongoing military operation ends remains to be seen
By Aimal Khan
Against the backdrop of some of the recent developments, it is no more relevant whether the Swat peace deal remains intact or the recently signed Nizam-e-Adl Regulation (NAR) achieves its objectives. The million-dollar questions are: how we can stop the Taliban from making further inroads in our society? Do we need drastic changes in our security doctrine and policies? Do we need an effective strategy for combatting extremism and terrorism? Should we continue to sign peace deals with banned militant organisations? Has the time come for state actors to disengage with the militants and stop patronising them in the larger national interest? Are the militants not crossing all the limits?
Unfortunately, the Taliban's advance and the recent statement of the defunct Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi (TNSM) chief Maulana Sufi Mohammad about superior courts and democracy directly or indirectly validate these concerns. Addressing a public gathering on April 19, Sufi Mohammad termed superior courts and democracy un-Islamic. Once again, people have started questioning his views and the tide has turned against him.
However, at the same time, Sufi Mohammad has also vowed to continue dialogue with the government for restoring peace in the troubled areas of the NWFP and FATA. But the response of the militants after the ongoing military operation ends remains to be seen. Media reports from Dir, Buner and Swat, on the other hand, suggest that the militants are going in a reaction mode.
The extremists are on a spree to challenge the religious, political and cultural basis of the country. In the name of religion, the Taliban are destroying everything by imposing their narrow and rigid Wahabi ideology, alien to the majority of Muslims in Pakistan. Moreover, their pro-jihad utterances and cross-border movements are worsening Pakistan's ties with its neighbouring countries, besides other regional and international actors.
Moving into Buner, the militants are now just 100 kilometres away from Peshawar and only a few kilometres away from some of the key strategic installations of the country. Alarm bells are ringing and it is feared that the state is on the brink of collapse, because the Taliban could take control of these strategic facilities. If not checked in time, the Taliban's advance could even invite intervention by foreign powers, who fear that Pakistan's nuclear weapons could fall in the hands of the militants.
Both the national and international media is flooded with reports pointing to the gravity of the situation, and the emerging threat to our security and integrity. Reports in the western media and recent statements by some high-ranking American officials portray a grim picture of Pakistan, and predict its collapse and overtaking by the militants. For most foreign and domestic political commentators, the peace deal with the TNSM is virtually handing over power to the militants in Swat, while signing NAR was termed government's surrender or capitulation before them.
Despite the signing of the controversial peace deal and NAR, the militants' activities have not stopped. In fact, militancy is spreading both vertically and horizontally. There are media reports that more volunteers are being enlisted and new trainings camps established, besides digging of new trenches. Moreover, the militants are entering and operating in other areas, such as Shangla, Battgram and Dir, besides Buner.
Considering the strategic importance of Buner and Shangla districts, the Taliban's advance in these areas will seriously challenge Pakistan's security. The fall of Buner will put pressure on neighbouring areas of Malakand, Swabi, Mardan, Haripur and Mansehra, bringing the Taliban closer to highly sensitive strategic facilities. With the capture of Shangla, the Taliban will be able to control the Karakoram Highway (KKH), a main supply route for Pakistani troops posted in the Northern Areas that links Pakistan to China. Shangla, Battgram, Mansehra, and Lower and Upper Dir are already vulnerable due to the militants' influence there.
The incidents of looting of private and government property, as well as other heinous crimes like kidnapping for ransom, have increased in areas controlled by the Taliban. In many parts of district Swat, a Nizam-e-Salat has been imposed, binding all believers to offer prayers and shut down businesses during prayer hours. Recently, the militants warned the shopkeepers in Mingora city of dire consequences if they entertained women customers. Similarly, the women have been advised to avoid visiting public places. The shops selling audio and video cassettes have been closed, and in some areas barbers have been warned against shaving beards.
Sufi Mohammad is faced with a dilemma because his integrity is at stake. On the one hand, he has given a commitment to the government that he would win over the militants and would convince them to lay down arms once NAR is enforced. On the other hand, the militants are giving a tough time to him by not accepting his decisions. Maulana Fazlullah, Sufi Mohammad's son-in-law and chief of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) Swat, also seems helpless before the militants. In short, one faction of the militants is supporting Sufi Mohammad's peace initiative, while the other is not ready to lay down arms and stop militant activities.
Compared with 1994 and 1999, the situation this time is completely different for many reasons. First, there exists a strong armed militant force that is not hesitant of imposing its narrow brand of religion. NAR will provide it with the legal authority to impose and justify its rigid and inhumane acts in the name of Islam. Second, the government's writ is very weak and it is not in a position to rein in the militants, who are out to interpret and implement NAR in a manner that they deem appropriate.
Third, the militants are not a party to the peace deal, thus they are not bound to abide by it. In other words, they can disown the peace deal whenever they want to. One should not forget that for most of the militants the enforcement of Sharia is not possible without armed jihad. Fourth, the regional strategic equation is now different and Pakistan is under increasing international focus. The Swat peace deal and NAR were opposed by major regional and global actors, and pressure is mounting on the Pakistani government in this regard with each passing day.
Besides this, there is a difference of opinion between the government and the militants over the implementation of NAR and other procedural issues. For the government, NAR is only aimed at the provision of speedy justice; while for the militants it is Sharia, a complete code of life. Another issue is that of the appointment of qazis (judges). The government claims that it is its prerogative to appoint qazis, while Sufi Mohammad wants more say in the process. Similarly, the government considers end to violence a major prerequisite for maintenance of peace, but the militants are not willing to lay down arms. Moreover, the militants' agenda is not local; rather, they believe in global jihad and vow to 'help' Muslims all over the world.
For the first time, besides foreign actors, the majority of political parties are asking for stern action against the militants. But there are serious doubts in political observers' minds regarding whether the Pakistani establishment would completely disengage with the Taliban or those militant groups who are on a spree to impose their narrow extremist agenda by force on the people and who do not hesitate to challenge the government's writ.
For the Pakistani establishment, the militants are a 'strategic asset' that has gradually turned into a liability. Unfortunately, there are as yet no signs of completely getting rid of this liability. After every six months, we hear about the launch of decisive military action against the terrorists, but unfortunately after every operation we witness extension of Talibanisation to new areas. As a result, large swathes of land in the NWFP and FATA have come under the Taliban's direct or indirect control.
The government has completed operation against the militants in Lower Dir and fighting is still going on in Buner, as both sides continue to make conflicting claims about the causalities. Amid operations in Dir and Buner, the Taliban are going in reaction mode. A new round of operation is expected in Swat too. The Taliban have increased patrolling and are busy in erecting new check posts in Swat. If not led to its logical conclusion, the ongoing operation can further complicate and aggravate the situation.
For gaining legitimacy and restoring public confidence, the security forces should precisely target the suspected hideouts to decide the fate of militancy once for all. In short, there is a need for immediate, effective and targeted action against the militants, because repetition of half-hearted measures will push the country further towards the brink of disaster.