Pakistan’s military tackles violent extremism near the Afghan border
REAR ADM. (RET.) PERVAIZ ASGHAR, PAKISTAN NAVY
The Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan were created in 1849 to serve as a buffer between British India and Afghanistan, while Afghanistan itself was being softened by invasions, subsidies and diplomacy to keep Czarist Russia at bay.
British India’s unease about the territorial ambitions of Russia caused it to recognize Afghanistan as an emirate and formalize the border, known as the Durand Line, painstakingly drawn up by a British diplomat Sir Mortimer Durand and the Afghan Emir Abdur Rahman Khan.
The Anglo-Afghan treaty of 1919, also referred to as the Treaty of Rawalpindi, signed after the third inconclusive Afghan war, led Britain to create another administrative unit, which it aptly termed as the North-West Frontier Province. For ease of governance, the tribal areas, which also then included the princely states of Dir and Swat, were divided into political agencies, each administered by a political agent, whose immense power was exercised through local leaders, or maliks, chosen on the strength of their loyalty to the crown.
While ostensibly displaying respect to Pashtun tradition by allowing trials by jirga (a jury of local notables), the Frontier Crimes Regulation Act, allowing for massive collective retribution, was also brutally enforced to snuff out the slightest sign of rebellion.
And so things continued until Pakistan attained independence from British rule. Apart from Pakistan Army regulars being withdrawn from the tribal agencies, nothing much changed in terms of governance. Each political agent, appointed by the central government, controlled a special force of around 2,000 to 3,000 khasadars (local police) and irregulars to enforce his writ, while the border was tended by the Frontier Corps, headed by Army officers.
FATA is colloquially referred to as ilaqa ghair (foreign territory), a local version of America’s Wild West. Since the Political Parties Act was never extended to FATA, the tribal dignitaries normally elected to parliament as independents invariably sold their loyalty to the highest bidder. Left to their own devices, the free-spirited tribesmen, for whom the bearing of arms was a way of life, resorted to smuggling, hijacking vehicles and kidnapping for ransom in mainland Pakistan as a means of sustenance.
The fight against extremism
The 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan catapulted FATA into the vanguard of the resistance movement. The massive influx of Afghan refugees and fighters from across the Islamic world led to the establishment of a record number of Saudi-funded madrassas for religious indoctrination and camps for military training. It was through the porous borders of FATA that the mujahedeen forayed into Afghanistan to carry out strikes. Pakistan in turn came into the crosshairs of the notorious Afghan spy agency Khad, its major cities wracked by an extensive bombing campaign.
Once the various Afghan mujahedeen factions resorted to fighting among themselves for the right to rule after the Soviet Union’s unilateral withdrawal in 1989, four countries — Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and the United States — initially favored the Taliban’s bid for power in the name of stability. The Taliban, a motley group of seminary students (mostly war orphans), aimed to place the entire country under the sway of their strict orthodoxy. They were knocking on the doors of the Panjshir Valley, the only remaining bastion of resistance, when a day or two before 9/11, the highly venerated Tajik commander Ahmad Shah Massoud was assassinated in an elaborate al-Qaida suicide bombing plot.
As the U.S. and its allies began the invasion of Afghanistan with a relentless bombing campaign, the Northern Alliance, a loose confederation of non-Pashtun ethnicities, proved more than willing to provide boots on the ground. Seeing the tide turning against them, remnants of the Taliban as well as al-Qaida crossed over the porous border into FATA. The next few years saw al-Qaida effectively using the twin instruments of money and indoctrination to gain local influence, offering promising young men positions of authority while eroding the influence of the traditionally pro-government tribal elders, physically eliminating them if necessary.
As the Afghan Taliban recommenced attacks on the government in Kabul, al-Qaida forged closer bonds between its array of foreign fighters and the local extremists that had assembled there, while eyeing the vast landscape of mainland Pakistan. The organization that emerged, the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), incorporated Mehsud and other assorted tribesmen, Punjabi Taliban and foreign fighters. TTP consolidated its grip on FATA, while extensively targeting the military, intelligence agencies, shrines and other civilian targets.
Alarm bells rang when Pakistan’s president, prime minister and a corps commander all became targets of assassination attempts and the TTP started flexing its military and ideological muscle beyond FATA into the state of Swat and other adjoining districts. The tactic of appeasement failed, and after being repeatedly deceived by peace treaties, the Pakistan military moved to drive the intruders out, one front at a time, until it established its writ over most of FATA, except for North Waziristan and the smaller Khyber Agency.
The brazen mid-2014 attack on Karachi’s international airport finally nudged the military into launching an offensive in North Waziristan, something that the U.S. had been urging for some time. Over the years, North Waziristan had become a fortified al-Qaida redoubt, where terrorists of all shades had gravitated. Of these, NATO deemed the Haqqani Group to be the most problematic. Apart from the difficult terrain and entrenched opposition, the Army was also forced to oversee civilians fleeing the battle zone. It took nearly two years and 800 lives before Operation Zarb-e-Azb, as it was called, succeeded in dislodging the violent extremists, who then proceeded to establish themselves across the border in the Afghan provinces of Kunar, Khost and Nuristan.
The cold-blooded massacre of over 150 students at a public school in Peshawar in December 2014 and the public backlash it provoked led officials to hurriedly formulate a 20-point National Action Plan in a desperate bid to stem the tide of radicalism and militancy. Apart from the ongoing military operation, this plan incorporated various preventive measures like clamping down on hate speech and literature and blocking funding to banned organizations.
Confronted with a fresh spate of attacks in various parts of the country, the military proceeded with another wide-ranging intelligence-based operation called Radd-ul-Fasaad (Elimination of Discord), which aims to pre-empt attacks by ridding the country of sleeper cells. Now that Pakistan’s security forces have established their writ over most of FATA, efforts continue to bring some normalcy to the lives of the tribesmen displaced by the military operation but now being resettled. Social services such as health care and education had taken a massive hit, including the appropriation of about 900 girls schools in North Waziristan for other uses.
The Pakistan military’s success in reinvigorating the health, education and agriculture sectors has inspired United Nations agencies and other international nongovernmental organizations to step into a recently off-limits arena. FATA’s economy revolves around subsistence agriculture and livestock rearing; its vast mining potential remains almost completely unexploited. The recently completed two-year United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization project has supported as many as 21,192 farmers in the Kurram and Khyber agencies, though providing assistance in the more remote, rocky and mountainous terrains of FATA is proving more problematic. Small dams have arisen in several places to provide electricity and water for irrigation.
Now that Pakistan and Afghanistan are vociferously complaining about cross-border attacks, the obvious solution lies in creating a joint mechanism for monitoring the notoriously porous border. This is easier said than done, because Afghanistan still hasn’t accepted the Durand Line as the international frontier.
Trouble started when British India was preparing to transfer power to newly independent Pakistan. Afghanistan used the opportunity to stake a claim to vast territory it had controlled centuries earlier. On June 30, 1950, the British government formally confirmed that Pakistan, under international law, inherited the rights and duties of the old government of India in territories southeast of the Durand Line. This should have put the matter to rest, but the issue continues to poison bilateral relations to this day. From a strictly legal perspective, the 1978 Vienna Convention on Succession of States in Respect of Treaties has upheld that under the universally recognized principle of uti possidetis juris, binding bilateral agreements are passed down to successor states.
Given Afghan resistance on the issue, it’s little wonder that Pakistan has been so obsessed with Afghanistan’s leadership — going so far as to support Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and the Taliban. Since 9/11, Pakistan has been accused of backing the Haqqani Group, the most lethal component of the Afghan Taliban.
It is clear that halfhearted measures will not do. Bad blood and bad-mouthing serve no purpose and have gone on long enough. Everyone must recognize that, despite its flaws, the Durand Line is the only legally demarcated border between the territories constituting present-day Pakistan and Afghanistan. Pakistan had traditionally shied away from border management issues for fear of offending its neighbor. However, after having repeatedly come under attack from extremists living across the border, Pakistan has strengthened border security and control.
As a first step, Pakistan dug trenches along 1,100 kilometers of the low-lying border. Overriding Afghan objections, Pakistan moved to stop illegal crossings over the unguarded border by starting construction on as many as 443 security posts, a task expected to be completed by 2019. A visa regime was also instituted for the first time to facilitate authorized travel only from a few selected border crossing terminals. To further regulate the movement of people and to stop illegal infiltration, Pakistan has recently started fencing the volatile border, with its initial phase focusing on high-priority agencies like Bajaur, Mohmand and Khyber.
It is also time for Pakistan to bring FATA into the mainstream, creating a distinct Pakistani identity among the tribesmen on its side of the border. Any complete solution to the FATA problem must include a long-term plan for development to reduce the socio-economic gap with the adjoining “settled areas.” This, however, needs to be undertaken in the context of democratic governance and administrative dispensation. The consensus appears to favor a temporary merger of FATA with the province of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, better known by its old name of North-West Frontier Province.
FATA parliamentarians have moved a constitutional amendment bill to remove the biggest obstacle to the merger, while the Provincial Assembly has already voted for it. Political expediency is the only remaining hindrance. While doing away with the repressive colonial-era Frontier Crimes Regulation Act, the government is still inclined toward appeasing tribal maliks by retaining the traditional jirga system of dispensing justice. This would need to be carefully dovetailed with Pakistan’s judicial structure expected to be extended to the region.
Contrary to popular perception, the tribesmen of FATA are not reclusive and isolationist. They have never hesitated to move to various parts of the country and even abroad in search of opportunities. They have displayed immense entrepreneurial skills in dominating the long-haul trucking sector. Their abilities can be further honed and nurtured in the context of an effective, democratic system.
The longstanding family and tribal ties the tribesmen straddling the border enjoy should not be suffocated by a sealed border, but rather should be nurtured through joint economic enterprises. A major initiative once endorsed by the U.S. government has been the setting up of Reconstruction Opportunity Zones akin to those existing along the Jordanian-Israeli border, the Egyptian-Israeli border and even the U.S.-Mexican border.
Apart from FATA, other neglected regions to the south also need to be brought into the mainstream if the genie of violent extremism is to be contained. In this troubled region, as elsewhere, peace and prosperity are intricately linked. Sooner rather than later, people must realize that it is only by joining hands that these can be achieved.
Pakistan’s latest counterterror strategy adapts to new threats
After a series of suicide bombings that shocked the nation — including one that killed 86 people at a Sufi shrine full of devotees — the Pakistan Army announced in February 2017 the launch of a nationwide military operation to “indiscriminately” eliminate the terrorism threat.
The new campaign, dubbed Radd-ul-Fasaad, or “Eliminating Discord,” represents a shift in strategy for Pakistan’s counterterrorism forces, whose efforts have focused for a decade on the ethnically diverse northwest tribal region. For the first time, the government is sending the Armed Forces to enter Punjab province.
Punjab is home to a variety of extremist groups, including sectarian movements officially banned for their violent methods and anti-India extremists who have been accused of a 2008 terrorist siege in Mumbai. Though none of these groups appears to have been directly involved in the bombings, they are increasingly viewed in Pakistan as part of a larger, collaborative threat by extremists to Pakistan’s stability, global stature and democratic way of life.
“In Punjab, particularly in southern Punjab, there are sanctuaries of hardcore militants who have not been targeted before,” said retired Pakistan Army Lt. Gen. Amjad Shoaib, a defense analyst. “This time they will be taken to task, and that will help a lot in eliminating terrorism not only from Punjab but other parts of country.”
In a February 2017 interview, Gen. John Nicholson, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, noted that 20 of the 98 groups the U.S. government has designated as terrorist organizations are in Punjab — “the highest concentration anywhere in the world.”
Gen. Nicholson said that because these groups exist in a common “medium” — with large numbers of jobless youths, the presence of criminal activity, and extremist teachings in some religious seminaries — “it creates kind of a petri dish within which these different strains of terrorism [can] converge, recruit and morph into more virulent strains.”
Already, the new campaign has resulted in hundreds of search operations in various areas of Punjab, including Karor, Layyah and Rawalpindi, as well as the capture of more than 600 suspects and the killing of numerous terrorists. The Army has recovered extremist propaganda and weapons, established checkpoints and “effectively targeted” terrorist hideouts, according to Hilal.
After meetings with Army Chief Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, as well as senior officials in Punjab, the government agreed to allow the Army into the province. Army officials said the new operation would include sending 2,000 Rangers into Punjab for 60 to 90 days. Unlike previous operations in other parts of Pakistan that have chiefly used force to flush out or kill the enemy, officials said, this one would involve mostly intelligence gathering. Its mission will also include “deweaponizing” extremist groups, which could entail confrontations at heavily armed compounds.
The Army’s announcement was met with widespread approval. Editors of The Express Tribune wrote that they “wholeheartedly support” the decision, and they urged Soldiers to strike at the “snake pits” of extremism that function as “rear-echelon support” for other extremist groups and as planning and logistics hubs for terrorist operations across the country.
The change in strategy comes in the wake of operations like Zarb-e-Azb, which reduced terrorism in Pakistan by more than 65 percent in the last 16 years, according to the Tribune. Though the February 2017 attacks demonstrated that the threat of violence still looms, Maj. Gen. Asif Ghafoor, director-general of Inter-Services Public Relations for the Pakistan Armed Forces, emphasized that past campaigns had achieved their objectives.
“Previous operations were primarily aimed at restoring the state’s authority in different areas and eliminating terrorists’ hideouts,” he said. “Operation Radd-ul-Fasaad aims at consolidating the gains of these previous operations.”
Lt. Col. Shaid Abid, assistant director of training at Pakistan’s Army Headquarters, noted that intelligence gathering in urban areas is key to the success of Radd-ul-Fasaad.
“You need people at the grassroots level to provide information about the miscreants in the area,” said Col. Abid, who led a multinational team at the Eager Lion military exercise in Jordan in May 2017.