July 10, 2008 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 454

Pakistani Military Drive Avoids Targeting Taliban

July 10, 2008 | By Tufail Ahmad*
Pakistan | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 454


On June 28, 2008, the Pakistani government ordered a military operation against Islamist fighters in the tribal district of Khyber Agency, which borders on the North West Frontier Province (NWFP). The next day, Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani said at a hurriedly-called press conference in Lahore that this military operation was aimed at the Taliban and was launched as a last resort.[1] He explained that his government's policy vis-à-vis the Islamist militants was based on three components: launching a dialogue with the Taliban; offering a development package to the regions in which it is active; and ordering military action as a last resort.

Prime Minister Gilani criticized the Taliban's actions in the areas under their control, such as burning down girls' schools, beheading alleged criminals, closing down barbershops that do shaving of beards, disregarding the peace agreements with the NWFP government, and undermining the government's authority in the federally administered tribal areas (FATAs) and in the NWFP.[2]

It should be noted that the Islamist groups targeted by the military operation in Khyber Agency – namely Lashkar-e-Islam and its rival, Ansarul Islam – are not formally part of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (the Pakistani Taliban Movement). However, their objectives and actions are identical to those of the Taliban. These groups also constitute a good example of how small groups of criminals develop muscle over the years and acquire a set of ideological objectives, depending on the social context in which they evolve.[3]

But this was not the main reason that prompted the Pakistani government to launch a military operation in the tribal district of Khyber. This district, which borders Afghanistan on one side and the NWFP on the other, is important not only because the main supply route of the U.S. forces in Afghanistan passes through it, but also because of its proximity to Peshawar, the NWFP capital. In fact, the operation focused on the town of Bara, just five km from Peshawar, where Lashkar-e-Islam headquarters are located. The immediate reason for the military operation is the Taliban's gradual encroachment on this city.[4]

The Taliban Is Moving on Peshawar

The Taliban is currently waging two separate wars in Pakistan's border regions. One is a war against Afghanistan, NATO, the U.S., and Pakistan, and another is directed specifically at Pakistan, despite the recent peace agreements with the NWFP government. Although the Islamists have halted suicide attacks in return for the government's release of their prisoners, most of their activities have not stopped.

For example, even after the government made a deal with the Islamist group Tehreek-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Muhammadi (Movement for the Enforcement of the Islamic Shari'a), releasing its leader from prison and permitting it to enforce shari'a in the Swat and Malakand region of the NWFP, the Taliban did not cease its violent activities, and in late June, 10 girls' schools were burned in the Swat district.[5]

This is one of numerous examples of the Taliban defying the government in the regions it controls. However, the main cause for concern is the Taliban's recent advance on Peshawar. Since late June, the Taliban has been present in all the surrounding regions – namely Khyber Agency, Darra Adam Khel, Mohmand Agency, Shabqadar, Michni, Mardan, and Frontier Region Peshawar.[6] Even in the city itself and in its environs, there have been reports of violence and destruction: electricity pylons and power substations have been vandalized, shops selling CDs and DVDs in the center of Peshawar have been bombed, and the Peshawar military base has come under rocket fire – leading some to speculate that the city may soon fall to the Taliban. The business community in the NWFP has expressed its concern over this possibility. Inayat Khan, vice president of the NWFP Chamber of Commerce and Industry, noted that both residents and investors were worried about the increasing "Talibanization" of the Peshawar area.[7]

In early June, NWFP Police Chief Malik Naved Khan warned the province authorities about the danger, stating that, if the government failed to take action, Peshawar would soon be under Taliban control.[8] His concerns were echoed by the province's top bureaucrat, Tipu Mohabbat Khan, who likewise noted in mid-June that Taliban fighters were moving on the city.[9] However, these warnings were disregarded by the secular government of the province, led by the Awami National Party that came to power in the February 2008 elections. The secular governments in Peshawar and Islamabad have been criticized widely outside Pakistan – for instance by Afghanistan, NATO and the U.S. – for pursuing a policy of dialogue with the Taliban.

Militants Abduct Christians During Prayer Meeting in Peshawar

During the last week of June, the federal government finally ordered military action against the Taliban, launching Operation Sirat-e-Mustaqeem (Right Path), which, according to Prime Minister Gilani, was directed against Islamists in Peshawar, Khyber Agency and other tribal districts.[10] The immediate trigger for the operation was two incidents of kidnapping which occurred in Peshawar on the same day (June 21, 2008). Militants abducted six women from the city's posh Hatband neighborhood on allegations of involvement in human trafficking, and a group of 16 Christians, including two priests, was abducted in broad daylight during a prayer meeting. The Christians were released following hurried negotiations between the government and Islamist groups in the region.[11] Both kidnappings were perpetrated by the Islamist group Lashkar-e-Islam, which was the target of Operation Sirat-e-Mustaqeem in Khyber Agency.

A strong editorial in the Peshawar-based daily Roznama Mashriq criticized the Islamists' defiance of the government's authority in the provincial capital: "The kidnapping of so many Christians... right [there] in the city is not a normal incident, and it should not be made light of. It is a message from the kidnappers to the province government, which is responsible for policing [the region] and for maintaining law and order; and it reveals the weakness and helplessness of the government and the [state] institutions."[12]

Peshawar, a city of some three million, became an Islamist center during the 1980s war against the Soviets in Afghanistan. The Taliban's actions in the recent months indicate that it is seeking to control the city with an eye to spreading its influence over larger parts of Pakistan. Lashkar-e-Islam's advance towards Peshawar was carried out with the Taliban's support. Maulvi Omar, spokesman of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (the Pakistani Taliban Movement) confirmed that Peshawar was one of the Taliban's targets; in late June 2008 he stated explicitly, "Our next target is Peshawar."[13]

Questions Raised over Operation Sirat-e-Mustaqeem

The Islamist organizations in Pakistan have survived thanks to support from powerful elements in Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). During the 1980s, the ISI backed the Taliban with financial aid received from the U.S. This ended after the U.S. removed the Taliban from power in Kabul following the 9/11 attacks. At this point, however, India took the opportunity to establish wide political influence inside Afghanistan. This move was not acceptable to Pakistan, which has a long-standing policy of maintaining strategic depth in Afghanistan. In 2006, the Taliban reemerged in Pakistan, apparently aided by Pakistan via the tribal districts. In other words, the Pakistani military's long-standing support of the Taliban is still in place, and this may explain why Operation Sirat-e-Mustaqeem was not aimed that the Taliban.

As mentioned above, this military operation focused mainly on Lashkar-e-Islam – a group that is not part of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, the umbrella organization of Islamist groups led by Taliban commander Baitullah Mehsud. By focusing on this group, the Pakistani military thus effectively avoided targeting the Taliban. The two key figures in Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan – Baitullah Mehsud, who wields power mainly in the tribal districts, and Islamist leader Maulana Sufi Muhammad, who is powerful in the NWFP – have remained untouched. In fact, senior NWFP minister Bashir Bilour has gone on record as saying: "The operation in the tribal districts is not against the Taliban, but against militants."[14]

As the operation was launched, Lashkar-e-Islam took a decision to avoid fighting the Pakistan army, and its militants took refuge among the general population. The organization's leader, Mangal Bagh, said that his fighters would not engage their fellow Pakistanis in the armed forces. At the same time, he called upon Hamidullah Jan, a local MP, to resign from the Pakistani parliament for failing to stop the military action. He also clarified that his organization would keep fighting "criminal elements" in the Khyber Agency,[15] thereby indicating that Lashkar-e-Islam is not about to relinquish its control of the region. Mangal Bagh added that his fighters were fighting the rival Islamist group Ansarul Islam.

All this raises questions regarding the purpose of the military operation. The secretary-general of the religious movement Jamaat-e-Islami Pakistan, Syed Munawwar Hasan, criticized the government, saying: "[After] creating an artificial situation in the tribal districts [by not confronting the Taliban], [the government] has launched a military operation in order to convince [the U.S.]... that it was playing its part in the War on Terror, and that it needed U.S. aid."[16] Lashkar-e-Islam leader Mangal Bagh also stated that the aim of the operation was to please the U.S.[17] The timing of the operation was, in fact, significant in view of Prime Minister Gilani's upcoming visit to the U.S., and considering the aid package for Pakistan which the Bush administration is expected to approve: $150 million a year for a period of 10 years.[18]

The operation yielded the arrest of several civilians and low-ranking fighters. Pakistan's mass-circulation Urdu-language newspaper Roznama Jang wondered who wrote the script for the Operation Sirat-e-Mustaqeem, stating that it targeted nothing more than "empty buildings [used by] the banned organizations Lashkar-e-Islam, Ansarul Islam and Amr bil Maroof wa Nahi al-Munkar," and that "not one of the leaders or fighters [of these organizations] was captured."[19]

Meanwhile, the Pakistani government has indicated that it is ready to hold dialogue with Lashkar-e-Islam. Tariq Hayat, the all-powerful administrator of the federal government in Khyber Agency, said that a government-sponsored delegation of tribal elders was holding talks with Mangal Bagh.[20] By the first week of July, the military operation wound down, the Pakistani government claiming that Mangal Bagh had accepted its conditions for ceasing military action.[21] Mangal Bagh himself, however, stated that he had not yielded to government demands.[22] It remains to be seen whether the military operation, and the pressure of the tribal elders, will convince Mangal Bagh to abandon his dream of capturing Peshawar, which lies only 155 kilometers from Islamabad.

* Tufail Ahmad is the director of MEMRI's Urdu-Pashtu Media Project.

[1]Roznama Express (Pakistan), June 30, 2008.

[2] Roznama Express (Pakistan), June 30, 2008.

[3] See MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 1906, ''Pakistan-Based Militant Group Lashkar-e-Islam Vows 'To Spread Islam Across the World,''' April 23, 2008, Pakistan-Based Militant Group Lashkar-e-Islam Vows "To Spread Islam Across the World".

[4] Roznama Mashriq (Pakistan), June 18, 2008.

[5] Roznama Jang (Pakistan), June 26, 2008.

[6] Roznama Mashriq (Pakistan), June 18, 2008.

[7] Daily Times (Pakistan), June 20, 2008.

[8] Roznama Jasarat (Pakistan), June 4, 2008.

[9] Roznama Mashriq (Pakistan), June 18, 2008.

[10] Roznama Express (Pakistan), June 30, 2008.

[11] Roznama Jang (Pakistan), June 23, 2008.

[12] Roznama Mashriq (Pakistan), June 23, 2008.

[13] Roznama Khabrain (Pakistan), June 26, 2008.

[14] Roznama Jang (Pakistan), July 1, 2008.

[15] Roznama Jasarat (Pakistan), July 3, 2008.

[16] Roznama Jang (Pakistan), July 2, 2008.

[17] Roznama Khabrain (Pakistan), July 4, 2008.

[18] Roznama Jang (Pakistan), June 30, 2008.

[19] Roznama Jang (Pakistan), July 2, 2008.

[20] Roznama Mashriq (Pakistan), July 3, 2008.

[21] Roznama Jasarat (Pakistan), July 6, 2008.

[22] Roznama Jasarat (Pakistan), July 6, 2008.

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