Pakistani forces bombarded suspected militant hideouts with mortar shells Saturday as the government launched a major offensive against Taliban fighters threatening the main city in the country’s volatile northwest, officials said.
The offensive in the Khyber tribal region marked the first major military action Pakistan’s newly elected government has taken against the militants operating in the tribal areas along the border with Afghanistan.
The government had said it preferred to try to defuse tension with the groups through negotiations, but with threats by Islamic militants to the city of Peshawar growing in recent weeks, the military decided to take action. Khyber also is a key route for moving U.S. military supplies into neighboring Afghanistan.
Interestingly enough, Pakistan’s Daily Times quoted official sources the day before as saying that the deployments only amounted to a “show of force” rather than a military operation.
The Economic Times suggests the gravity of the threat posed by militants in the region:
The fall of Peshawar, the provincial capital of Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province (NWFP) to heavily armed Islamic militants is eminent, say experts and locals of the area.
According to the Globe and Mail, Peshawar, which borders Pakistan’s wild tribal belt, is menaced by Taliban groups and other warlords on three sides.
To the south in Darra Adam Khel, forces of the Tehrik-e-Taliban of Pakistan, an umbrella group of Taliban, have taken virtual control of the city some time ago. Baitullah Mehsud leads this group.
To the east, a militant named Mangal Bagh leads a group called Lashkar-i-Islam. He holds sway in the Khyber agency and is so flush with men and money that he is fighting another Islamic group in the Tirah valley, law enforcement officials said.
To the north, the forces of Tehrik-e-Taliban have established a prison in the town of Michini. In the town of Warsak, the Taliban have constructed a training camp, officials said.
In Shabqadar, a few miles away, the Taliban have turned up in the central square and posted a notice urging people to contact them rather than the courts to settle their disputes.
And, if it is taken over by the extremists, the rest of the North West Frontier Province is also threatened, raising the possibility that religious fundamentalists may gain control of a state on Afghanistan’s border.
The confrontation is serious enough for Baitullah Mehsud, Pakistan’s “top Taliban commander,” to suspend peace talks with the government (even though he isn’t the actual target of the operation). And the operation takes place in the same general region that, according to locals, the US has recently stepped up airspace incursions and engaged in the usual panoply of small-scale cross-border attacks.
The fundamental problems here should surprise no one.
The Pakistani’s government’s writ has never more than barely extended into these regions. A late friend of my family used to tell stories about how, while stationed in Pakistan in the 1960s, he would move through them in Pakistani armored conveys. In many places, even his heavily armed escorts could not safely spend the night. There, the Pakistani military has more the status of a foreign occupier than an indigenous security force.
Yet the Pakistani government–and its constituencies–view US actions as affronts to Pakistani sovereignty, even as it conducts on-and-off-again negotiations with militants in which it tries to trade, in effect, slices of its territorial and functional authority for peace.
Needless to say, NATO cannot effectively contain–let alone defeat–the Taliban so long as they can use Pakistani territory as a staging area. The Pakistani government cannot, even if it wanted to, resolve the problem on its own. Whatever limited successes they garner from negotiations–such as a reduction in militant attacks in Pakistan’s major cities–seems to translate into further losses of authority in their periphery. But the sovereignty issue renders effective US-Pakistani cooperation a non-starter, so we’re likely to continue to a cycle of offensives, followed by negotiations that allow the militants to regroup, followed by more offensives.
Meanwhile, small-scale US and NATO operations will continue across the border. Throughout all of this, the Pakistani government–and US diplomats–will talk about “long-term solutions” that involve regional development, but without much significant progress on the ground.
As long as there’s no major impetus to disrupt these dynamics–whether from the Pakistani civilian government, the Pakistani military, the US and NATO, tribal leaders, or the militants themselves–it is difficult to see any significant changes on the horizon. And the status quo benefits neither NATO nor the Pakistani government.
Image source: the BBC