What is state failure? See my conceptualisation of state failure on the right flank below.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Pakistan on my mind

While I was not posting anything on Pakistan, the Pakistani army Frontier Corps has carried out major operations in Bajaur Agency in the FATA, as well as in some adjoining parts of the North-Western Frontier Province. It started out badly, as the local Taliban faction (the TNSM, Tehrik-i-Nifaz-i-Sharia-i-Mohammadi) killed many Frontier Corps soldiers, on August 11, just a few days after the start of the offensive. The latter (about 200 of them) were trying to take back the Loi Sam outpost from the militants, that those had occupied last winter. Loi Sam is near Damadola where Ayman az-Zawahiri had almost been killed in 2006, and where a former leader of TNSM had been killed in a major airstrike on a radical madrasa even earlier (and also where a senior AQ operative, Abu Suleiman al-Jazairi was killed at the end of May, 2008).
IEDs stopped the military convoy, however, and they came under sustained fire. The Taliban, while obviously suffering some casualties, even captured a tank at one point, according to one source. The Frontier Corps retreated to Khar, Bajaur's capital, while the TNSM militants started to build new fighting positions around Khar. At this point the Pakistani air force had already become involved. The fighting that ensued generated an enormous refugee flow, as, according to some reports, over 100,000 people have by now fled from the area. The aerial bombing destroyed dozens of houses in several villages. In Loi Sam some of the militants fled to a school building which was then razed by a bomb, for example. In such circumstances, surely civilians died as well. In the fighting on the ground, several Frontier Corps soldiers have likely been taken hostage by militants, suggesting the possibility of a future prisoner swap and the usual Pakistani military pull-out from the area where wrestling control from insurgents had been attempted. (According to the LWJ, some 60 FC soldiers may have died, and up to 55 may have been captured.)
(By the way, I should link to it, you can read in detail about the Frontier Corps' and its history, at Jamestown. You will also see the significance of that militants handed over the bodies of 22 dead Frontier Corps soldiers to local tribal leaders.)
The very next day, on August 12, an air force bus was blown up, killing at least half a dozen people from the air force. A very quick retaliation, and it's notable that the attackers most likely had foreknowledge of the air force personnel travelling the road. The device that killed them was placed under a bridge. The blast put a hole in the bridge and burned up the bus from below. If you're wondering, Asia Times' Syed Saleem Shahzad has explicitly claimed that according to one of his sources the August 11 ambush near Loi Sam came as a result of leaked information.
Meanwhile, militants have suffered casualties as well. A senior AQ leader, travelling with the local militants most likely, Abu Saeed "Egyptian" (al-Masri in Arabic) was killed in Bajaur, on August 12. He was number three in al-Qaida by some people's counting, right behind Zawahiri in the rankings. Maulana Faqir Mohammad, the Taliban's leader in Bajaur Agency, may have also been killed. His car was shot at by helicopters near Khar and then, as those travelling inside tried to run for cover, their position was pounded by artillery fire. Of all possible sources a local villager, Haji Rahmanullah said this to The News of Pakistan, about the operations in Bajaur: "For the first time I saw the military helicopters targeting accurate locations and hideouts of Taliban." In one strike, in the Mamond area, the local TNSM leader Maulana Mohammad Munir's madrasa was shot up. It used to be guarded by insurgents who claimed to have taken their weapons from Frontier Corps soldiers in the August 11 ambush. In this particular area, militants felt so threatened that they banned locals from fleeing the area, to thus make it more difficult or costly for the Pakistani military to take it. The Pakistani military, in order to cut insurgents' fuel supply in the Mamond Tehsil, had, at around the same time, destroyed a fuel pump near Inayat Khal.
(The focus on Bajaur doesn't mean there is nothing happening elsewhere in the FATA. Baitullah Mehsud's men have just finished off Haji Namdar in the Khyber Agency. That Haji Namdar.)
The point I'd like to make, coming to the end of this overview, is plain obvious: Western news reports start with the most irrelevant bit of information. They say things like "at least 38 militants were killed in Pakistan's troubled tribal region, near the Afghan border." It is literally mind-numbing: it's not all the same which part of the tribal region we are talking about, and usually we will not have an even closely accurate estimate of how many died and on which side.
Nevertheless we do know that the Pakistani military has now tried to hit the militants hard, and that it faced some predictable betrayal in the process.
The question I always have, when the Pakistani military shows readiness to run into this sort of situation, is whose offensive was it? Back in the old Musharraf days you would know that if the pressure on Musharraf reached a critical level, something would come. Or if there were openly mentioned indications and accusations that some people in the Pakistani army or ISI were up to some dark business, something came to ease the pressure, with or without Musharraf's urging that. But now Musharraf is leaving office. The U.S. side, as much as it likes dealing with countries through one person (which usually puts said person in the comfortable place between a rock and another rock), did not make the Pakistani government's job of defeating Musharraf for good easier. Somewhat predictably, the Saudis went in to provide assurances to everyone. Meanwhile, the new government is not likely to think fundamentally differently from Musharraf, ever. They are no more intent on waging what many see as somebody else's war than Musharraf was, even though they are of course not so stupid as to think that this is entirely somebody else's war, and that Taliban militants in ski resorts are a good thing for Pakistan (just like Musharraf hasn't thought that, either, even while it was convenient for him, for a while, when he made his move against what he saw as the greatest source of subversion in Pakistan: lawyers). So, coming back to the government, they themselves might at times feel the need to do something hard about militants, provided there is enough pressure to give a critical impulse to them. But the Bajaur offensive came during the last days of "cohabitation" as the French would call it - and cohabitation means a much more murky situation in Pakistan's case than it does in France. Just add to this the cloud of strategic chaos that has descended on Pakistan's security sector, and it's a messy situation indeed. It's difficult to attribute the Bajaur offensive to anyone in particular therefore. Whoever it is attributed to loses points as well as gains some in other ways. In Musharraf's case there is the limitation that radicals are tailoring the image of a full-blown traitor for him - on August 10, just before the Bajaur offensive which might have directly threatened him, Ayman az-Zawahir himself called Musharraf a friend of Israel, something not exactly universally liked in jihadist circles.
An AP reporter, Nahal Toosi, has already opined in a news agency report that the government of Pakistan is continuing Musharraf's unpopular policies (when in fact I'm not so sure how much the government is capable of telling the army exactly what it wants from it, let alone get it from the army). The intelligence/policy/covert operations interface (as much as there is any interface effectively) has been reconfigured again in Pakistan, but not the fundamental dynamics of what is going on in the security sector - which means the U.S.-Pakistani leadership interface will not work very differently in the future, either. Er, well, wait, we don't know who will be the next President... read Arif Rafiq on this.


Misanthrope said...

Several comments on this:

1. The complete lack of realization of whats happening in Bajur in the western media is appalling.

2. The 'operation' was launched by the interior-ministry controlled Frontier Corps not the army. At one point army spokesmen were saying they didnt know what was happening at Lowi Sam and referred reporters to the FC headquarters.

3. Its difficult to say right now whether the 'operation' was a relatively routine re-occupation of an abandoned checkpost to block militant infiltration into Swat, that, after the militants siege of Lowi Sam snowballed into a large-scale conflict, or if this was a planned operation to clear Bajur in the first place. My suspicion is the later.

4. Again the western press is reporting this as an outcome of the 'tough' message given to the PM in his visit to Washington but as you point out its difficult to see if the two points are related.

5. The massive dislocation of refugees (estimates now hitting 300,000) is a PR disaster in the making, particularly as many opposition parties (and some like the JUI in the govt) and sections of the press are presenting this as another murderous operation launched at the behest of the US (so they buy into the same narrative heard in western papers for their own reasons).

6. If the US can shuttle token aid to refugees in Georgia, whats stopping them from doing it for the people of Bajur? What happened to the battle for hearts and minds?

Péter MARTON said...

A brilliant comment - with conclusions I agree with. Meanwhile, I realise that in my first sentence, out of a semi-conscious search for using the same expression less often, I also named the "Pakistani army" as the force that carried out the operation, even though I was aware that this was done mainly by the Frontier Corps in fact, and tried to get this clear elsewhere in my post. Now this is corrected above.
Since Army officers command the FC units, and since the air force got involved as well, early on, my bet would still be that either the army as such, or rather the army brass, had to know of this. Not to mention that ISI is also the army and I'd be surprised if the ISI wouldn't have known about the operation. Especially if it was meant to clear Bajaur entirely.