22 August 2009
The killing of Baitullah Mehsud, head of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, early this month is undoubtedly a major victory for the Pakistan security forces but, in the overall context of the Af-Pak strategy, it only merits to be termed as a short ‘operational pause’1 .
There is no doubt that Mehsud’s death will weaken the cabal of Talibanised tribal leaders and their supporters in Waziristan and nearby areas but the real question is its impact on the al Qaida’s plans for Pakistan and its neighbourhood.
It would be useful to begin by exploring the importance of Baitullah Mehsud. Mehsud, till early 2007, was an anonymous diabetic gym instructor from the Mehsud tribe, one of the two prominent tribes (other being the Waziris) which hold sway over large parts of the tribal areas straddling Pakistan and Afghanistan. Six years after the Taliban were forced to flee from their new found home in Afghanistan, Mehsud, who had taken part in the Afghan jihad, gave them shelter and protection and in turn became a trusted aide and commander of the Taliban in Pakistan. Mehsud thus became a key facilitator for the transformation of Waziristan and nearby areas into a sanctuary for the Taliban-al Qaida combine. Not only did he establish the Taliban rule in the federally administered tribal areas but also brought together disparate elements under an umbrella group called Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan or the Pakistan Taliban.
It would be facile to believe that Mehsud could have done this without the covert, if not overt, support of elements in the State, namely ISI and Pakistan Army. The fraudulent war on terror which former President and Army chief, Pervez Musharraf, enacted for almost seven years, punctuated with peace deals with Mehsud and his fellow tribal leaders, was certainly instrumental in the rise and rise of Baitullah and his Taliban franchise which saw minor chieftains like Fazlullah, Mullah Nazir, Mullah Haji Pir and others emerging.
It is important to understand how, and not why, Musharraf managed to play this duplicitous game so openly. Three reasons can be cited. One the hunt for Osama bin Laden which consumed the Bush administration was like the blind leading the blind with Musharraf leading his strategic ally on a merry go round across the mountains and valleys of Afghanistan. Two, Musharraf had not blundered into two of its calamitous follies --the sacking of the Supreme Court Chief Justice in March 2007 and the Lal Masjid offensive in July 2007. Till these incidents, the Army enjoyed an image of inviolability, a bulwark of sorts, and no one thought terrorists would target home. Third, the series of suicide attacks and bomb explosions across the middle-class urban centres of Pakistan--Lahore, Peshawar, Islamabad and Rawalpindi--brought home the stark truth that terrorists who have been ionised as `freedom fighters` for decades could turn rogue and turn against the creator itself.
The unceremonious ouster of the once-invincible Musharraf (last seen on a YouTube singing ghazals in London!) with the demand for his trial gathering steam in Islamabad today, marked the beginnings of certain discernible changes within Pakistan which needs to be studied and understood clinically. Mehsud’s death is part of this change in many ways.
Some of these changes are not difficult to delineate. First is that terrorism is not a problem which happens across the border but has come home with vengeance. Second, the Taliban are not always (has never been in fact) the good boys of Islam as projected but can be brutal (the whip-lashing of a young girl played out on televisions screens jolted the Taliban empathisers in Lahore and other Middle Pakistan) and they almost came close to the doorsteps of Islamabad. Third, the Army is not as invincible as projected. Fourth, if the State of Pakistan has to survive and flourish, it must find an alternative system of governance and not one punctuated by military regimes of dubious distinctions. Fifth, worries of radical brigands threatening the status quo have united the civil society, the civilian leadership and the military leaders to fight the Taliban and other such extremist elements.
In many ways, these are unprecedented changes but they are not just enough to turn back the process of radicalisation and state failure haunting the state of Pakistan caused by historical fault-lines and the criminally myopic ruling elite. The State has not given up its strategic option of using instruments of terror for furthering its foreign policy interests in India and Afghanistan in particular and the world in general. The State has merely, under the real possibility of an existential threat from the same instruments, decided to make a distinction between the good, bad and the ugly. Mehsud fell in the `ugly` category and hence his death is celebrated as a victory; LeT chief Hafiz Saeed is obviously in the `good` books and remains free; Jaish-e-Mohammad leader Maulana Masood Azhar falls in the bad category and hence kept confined to the margins. Another distinction which has become apparent is the one between the Pashtun Taliban and the Punjabi Taliban. The Army, bureaucracy and the political leadership is primarily Punjabi and the Taliban being reviled as the State Enemy is Pashtun by nature. The civil society, which is supporting the military operations against the Pakistani citizens, also happens to come from the Punjabi clique mentioned above.
The implications of such a distinction are grave to the Pakistani federation. In the years to come, as Lal Masjid (July 2007) unleashed a wave of terror from the tribal areas, the military operations against the Pashtuns, primarily conducted by the Punjabi officers and men in 2008 and 2009, will trigger a violent backlash in the months to come. Seeds of a civil war in Pakistan has been sown in Swat and Miramshah.
The second implication, no less grave, is the growth of radical and extremist elements in southern Punjab which, in the long run, will have far more serious consequences for the integrity of the state of Pakistan than men like Baitullah. Terrorist groups like LeT and JeM are products of the socio-cultural milieu of southern Punjab, a largely agrarian society drawing its moral and ethical sustenance from triple Ms--madrasas, masjids and maulvis--that have grown in size and influence in the past few decades. For at least two decades, most of the jihadis for Afghanistan and Kashmir have come from the towns and villages that abut main cities like Lahore, Jhelum, Multan and Gujranwala.
More than a lakh of people in today’s Punjab have had some training at the terrorist camps run by a whole lot of groups which mushroomed in the name of Afghan Jihad. Many more are studying in madrasas and schools run by extremist groups like Jamaat-ud Dawa (JuD), the parent organisation of LeT, and radical political organisations like Jamaat-e-Islami (JI). JI, incidentally, had sent hundreds and thousands of students from its schools and colleges first to support Pakistan Army’s subjugation of the Bengali Pakistanis in east Pakistan and then for Kashmir jihad. JuD runs more than 170 schools and several colleges in Punjab and other provinces where several thousand students learn mathematics and jihad or science and jihad , and are part of the extremist group’s overall plans to further its cause. The Pakistani state’s failure to curb such educational institutions and their radical agenda could prove to be the country’s undoing.
These failures on the part of the State is not because of its inability to carry out measures necessary to prevent the growth of radicalism in schools and colleges but its aversion to do so. This unwillingness is encouraged by the predominance of Pakistan Army in the decision-making process in Pakistan which has traditionally viewed extremist groups like JI and JuD as expendable instruments of power to quell internal dissension and promote proxy wars in the neighbourhood. The Army’s supremacy, in turn, comes from the absence of alternative governance systems which has not been allowed to take roots for the simple reason that Pakistan Army has remained more or less a `proxy army` for the US strategic interests in the Middle East. The three-legged system of governance has suited everyone, particularly the US, China, Saudi Arabia and other `super powers` besides the Army itself.
It is therefore obvious that the death of one Baitullah Mehsud will not change much in today’s Pakistan. Mehsud is only a manifestation of the disease which has consumed Pakistan since 1947--a Compulsive Religious Disorder which stripped a people of its social and cultural moorings.
Wilson John is Senior Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.
1 A term used by Pak Army chief Ashfaq Kayani to justify the peace deal in Swat in February 2009, a move which backfired within weeks after the Swat chapter of TTP took on the security forces and engaged in a prolonged conflict in the heart of North West Frontier Province for almost two months.