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Little Support for Military Offensive on Af-Pak Border

Taliban fighters have sanctuaries along the border areas between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Credit: Ashfaq Yusufzai/IPS

KARACHI, Nov 6 2012 (IPS) - As shock and outrage over the Taliban’s shooting of young Malala Yousafzai – a female activist – subsides, a new question has begun to make its rounds among political commentators in Pakistan: whether or not the government should launch an offensive against militants along the country’s border with Afghanistan.

On his recent visit to Pakistan, Marc Grossman, United States’ special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, failed to make his position on the issue clear.

Though he pressed for Pakistan to “do more” to control militants from the tribal area of North Waziristan (NW) currently fighting U.S. troops stationed in Afghanistan, Grossman seemed to suggest a change of heart in Washington, now that full troop withdrawal is close.

“On (the) particular question of a North Waziristan (offensive)… that is (a) decision solely for the Government of Pakistan,” he said on a talk show aired by the state-run Pakistan Television last month.

Since the beginning of 2012, Pakistan has witnessed a spate of attacks on security forces and politicians, systematic bombing of schools (96 schools were attacked this year alone), killing of shias, and attacks on military bases – all allegedly by armed groups including the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and their affiliates.

While the government as well as the army is cognizant of the threat posed by the militants, both have been reluctant to launch an all-out offensive for various reasons.

“There exists a certain paranoia within (the Pakistan) military about India’s increasing role in Afghanistan, and therefore it is reluctant to turn against its partners, like the Haqqani Network,” Imtiaz Gul, a defence expert from Islamabad, explained to IPS.

“Once the foreign forces withdraw, who knows how useful these ties could turn out to be for Pakistan?” he added.

However, there is rising pressure on the government, mainly from civil society, to stem the religious extremism and terrorism that has gripped the country.

For years the government has attempted to foster the image that it is not “doing the bidding” of the U.S. Now, the vicious attack on Yousafzai – a young advocate of girls’ right to education – has provided it with the perfect excuse to carry out a military offensive without running the risk of losing popular support, experts say.

“The time is right (to) flush out the militancy,” Kamal Siddiqi, editor of the English daily ‘Express Tribune’, told IPS. “The militants are based in NW and need to be routed from there,” he added.

Defence expert Ikram Sehgal agrees that “something needs to be done” about religious extremism and militancy but believes it will be foolhardy to jump into the hornet’s nest by launching an army offensive. “The army does not have the manpower, or the material resources, to fight the militants in a terrain that is extremely difficult to traverse,” he told IPS.

The solution, he believes, lies in forging a civilian-led counter-terrorism force. “That would break the nexus between corruption, organised crime and terrorism since the former two provide the latter with the logistical support needed to plan terrorist attacks,” he said.

Unfortunately, said Sehgal, the politicians sitting in the parliament would never allow such a force to develop, as it would mean losing the support of religious groups. With national elections, scheduled for March 2013, just around the corner, this would not be a politically expedient move.

Mirza Shahzad Akbar, a human rights lawyer who represents victims of drone strikes, is also against an outright military offensive. Instead, he told IPS, there is a need to move towards an honest national reconciliation.

“Reconciliation does not in any way mean that we accept unreasonable demands of terrorists, but we do need to address the issue of discontent in society.

“In this process, if the (need) for surgical military intervention (arises), that can be carried out with consensus but within constitutional bounds. If we are fighting a war which is fully ours, the nation will bear the consequences no matter what they are, but so far we are facing consequences of someone else’s war,” Akbar said, referring to the U.S.’ role in the region’s conflicts since 2001.

He added, “As long as the United States is in Afghanistan, I do not see this process of reconciliation being successful.”

According to Lahore-based political analyst Hassan Askari Rizvi, the attack on 14-year-old Yousafzai on Oct. 9 seems – for the first time in years – to have produced a “discourse that is challenging the Islamist view that (has) prevailed for far too long”.

Rizvi considers the opening up of this new discourse in the Urdu media an “important and positive outcome of the tragedy”.

Yet he does not see any army offensive in the near future as inevitable, especially in the face of a weak political consensus.

“With the national elections just around the corner the right-wing parties will never go against the Taliban, not even the main opposition party, the Pakistan Muslim League-N,” he said.

Chairman of the PML-N, Chaudhry Nisar, told journalists in Islamabad on Oct. 17 that a “smell of conspiracy” was in the air, adding that a military operation in NW would “destabilise the country”.

On the other hand, the Sunni Ittehad Council, a religious organisation made up of Sunni groups, announced its support of the government, should the latter choose to launch an offensive against the militants in NW.

“We want an immediate operation against the Taliban and will completely support the government,” said the Council’s chairman, Shaibzada Fazle Karim.

“Crush the Taliban and 180 million people will be standing behind you,” leader of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), Altaf Hussain, said during a telephone address from London, at a recent rally organised by his party members in Karachi.

But President Asif Ali Zardari warned of a “blowback” in the face of an army operation that did not have the support of the majority of the country.

“The idea of using force against a mindset that is widespread across various sections of society would be emotional and naïve,” he told journalists at a South Asia Free Media Association conference in Islamabad last week.

Gul, who also heads the independent Islamabad-based Centre for Research and Security Studies, said it was incorrect to assume that the “panacea” for terrorism lay in NW.

He called for a policy of “serious strategic” re-thinking. This would include, according to Gul, the government’s “categorical divorce” from terrorist outfits including Lashkar-e-Taiba, Mullah Omar’s Taliban, even the Haqqani Network, which is allegedly harbouring runaway militants, even if not directly involved in attacking Pakistan.

As a solution and a starting point, said Gul, “We must also acknowledge the real enemy lies within, not on the borders.

“The government should bring about effective legislation on terrorism that protects all stakeholders, have a strong witness and judge protection programme, (introduce) legislation that (prosecutes practitioners of) hate speech and intolerance, control mis-governance and bring about training of security personnel in forensics, law and human rights.”


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