By Zafar Hilaly
For all their brave talk of fighting, dying and teaching the army a lesson, the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in South Waziristan did what they always do when confronted by a larger force: they fled. A number, of course, stayed back, possibly as a rearguard to slow the army's advance. That would make sense, as from their well-positioned locations they could extract a heavy toll from the army. As it happened, the death toll was relatively light. In all, 550 insurgents, less than five per cent of the estimated numbers of the TTP force, were killed at the cost to the army of 100 brave soldiers and officers.
The TTP in South Waziristan had behaved much in the same way as in Swat. In fact, they acted as insurgents do all over the world when confronted by a regular army, which is to avoid set-piece battles so that they may live to fight another day. That is not to say that the operation was not a success. In fact, a great deal was achieved by the operation, and at a far lower cost in lives than expected.
By driving the TTP out of their strongholds in South Waziristan the army deprived them of the use of a safe haven, training facilities, bomb-making laboratories, etc. They also forced the retreating TTP to abandon a sizeable amount of weaponry and explosives, all of which will have to be replenished at considerable cost and much travail.
Insurgencies are wars of attrition and also a test of stamina and morale. The loss of strategic territory and weaponry weakens the insurgents, lowers morale and correspondingly inflates the will, effectiveness and resolve of the army and the nation. While the army has emerged the victor in South Waziristan, to maintain its ascendancy it will have to pursue and engage the enemy wherever they retreat. The TTP must know that if they are not going anywhere, nor is the army; and that, until such time as they relent, surrender or are defeated, neither will the army.
What bodes well for the future is the acceptance by the public of the legitimacy of operation Rah-e-Nijat. Public "acceptance" and "legitimacy" are key elements in determining the eventual success or failure of anti-insurgency strategies, just as they were in the dozen or so similar operations elsewhere in the world. William Polk's study of insurgencies further reveals that no matter how much alien occupiers wish to improve the condition of the local populace, when pitted against native insurgents the sympathy of the local population will invariably be with the latter. It is mostly for this reason that America cannot win in Afghanistan and why we can, even though we may not.
Of course, these are as yet early days of the civil war that is fast enveloping Pakistan. The TTP leadership is alive and yelling revenge. They have responded with a spate of bombings in Peshawar; although when they realised that the public reaction was hostile their spokesman chose to blame the bombings on the Americans.
Public anger against the Taliban is often accompanied by ire against the authorities for failing to protect the population. And because it is always difficult to acknowledge our own failings the public places the blame on foreign conspiracies. Actually, the public seem not as much lost as bewildered. They have no idea what to believe, let alone who. They cannot comprehend what is happening to their world and resent the fact that they cannot mend it.
Unless, therefore, the suicide bombings are thwarted more effectively, current support for the government will dissipate, giving way not only to anger but worse: hopelessness and a feeling that the government is helpless. And it is precisely when the public's pity at their own fate turns to contempt for the government that the insurgents step forward and offer themselves as alternative rulers, promising peace and an end to the slaughter, in return for the loyalty of the populace.
We saw this earlier in Swat when the police ran away, local officials were killed and the TTP stepped in to take on the job of maintaining law and order and dispensing justice. We also witnessed the absurd spectacle of TV channels broadcasting the speech of Sufi Mohammed proclaiming a new order that ironically would have made TV channels and Parliament redundant.
Although it was sobering to be confronted with what the future would look like if the TTP prevailed, more troubling was the fact that the whole nation viewed the spectacle being enacted in Swat so passively. Not a single man took to the streets against the brutalities of the TTP. And Parliament actually called for negotiations with the TTP, undoubtedly out of a sense of fear and foreboding, rather than patience and wisdom. Sadly, terror and force, the means that wins the easiest victory over reason, was being allowed to prevail.
The feeble and flaccid public response to the happenings in Swat was a revelation. It gave the enemy hope and showed how close we, as a society, are to the abyss. And were it not for the media's incessant screening of the young woman squealing while being whipped, would anyone have bothered or the army worked up the resolve to act? It is said that the army can only act with the support of the people. One discerned no such support among the people of Dacca in 1971. Luckily for the Jews, Moses did not conduct a poll before he set off. The fact is that when great changes occur in a nation's history, when great principles are involved, the majority are often wrong. Remedies often lie not in the ceaseless deliberations of many but the actions of a few.
As a result of the current vacuum in leadership, the clear direction which the nation so sorely requires is missing. The sarkar is rudderless. Mr Zardari feels wronged because people are laying the blame for the confusion that prevails at his doorstep. Yes, they are, but only because he not only errs, he blunders. Mr Zardari has responded by accusing people of jumping the gun and writing his political obituary. Actually, not only are they jumping the gun, they have hurdled the cannon; and what is being written now is not his political obituary but an epitaph which normally follows, and not precedes, an obituary. In other words, they are writing what they sense he has become—history. What, then, does the future hold? Who knows? Except, that it does seem dark and, at times, irretrievably so.
But if Mr Zardari, though more so his American mentors, display a mite of common sense and read the writing on the wall and depart—in the case of Mr Zardari, from office, and in the case of the Americans from Afghanistan—perhaps the darkness we are in will not stretch beyond the first light of day. Were the Americans to depart from Afghanistan the song that Al Qaeda, the Lashkars and the TTP sing will have little resonance. The Al Qaeda variety, in particular the Arab lot, who have had a hand in the murder of as many as 800 tribal maliks of FATA, can expect a cruel end when the tide turns, as it will. The Laskars, Jaishes and the TTP are more the concern of the establishment. They created them and now should snuff them out.
All this could happen, given time and proper leadership in Pakistan; and less paranoia and more imagination on the part of America. It is a shame, therefore, that the government is urging the Americans not to leave Afghanistan. How can those who, when they came should never have stayed on, be urged to continue a while longer? And after eight years, is Pakistan still not ready to cope on its own with the challenges it faces? Why should our leaders who act as if they are not afraid of God be scared of the adversary? Told that all Europe had fallen to the Nazis and asked how England expected to defend itself, an English cartoonist replied, "Very well, then alone." Are we up to it?