SOUTH ASIA INTELLIGENCE REVIEW
There are clear signs that the celebratory period of the coalition Government in Pakistan is over and the regime under Prime Minister Syed Yousuf Raza Gilani is facing immense pressure from multiple sources. Prominent among these is the enduring militancy across the country and the concomitant failure to stem the progression of entrenched forces of extremist Islam.
The first half of year 2008 has seen approximately 1,569 militancy-related fatalities across Pakistan (data till June 29). This includes 699 civilians and 616 militants. By comparison, the first half of 2007 had witnessed approximately 869 deaths, including 435 militants and 353 civilians.
The peace processes initiated by Islamabad in the aftermath of the elections and installation of the new Government is now rapidly unraveling, and reports now indicate that massive operations have been initiated by the Army in the Bara area of the Khyber tribal region. Earlier, on June 25, 2008, militants of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) killed 22 members of a pro-government "peace committee" at Jandola near Tank (adjacent to South Waziristan) in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP). Tank District Co-ordination Officer Barkatullah Marwat stated, "I can confirm that 22 bullet-ridden bodies of those kidnapped by the Taliban three days ago were recovered on Wednesday (June 25) near Jandola… Some of the dead were shot and some had their throats slit." Claiming responsibility for the killings, Taliban spokesman Maulana Umar declared, "We have killed 22 and the fate of the remaining six will be decided later." He added, further, "the Government should not intervene in the current situation, otherwise peace talks would be seriously undermined." Suspected militants also killed seven persons, including a leader of the ruling Pakistan People’s Party, a tribal elder, and their family members, in addition to destroying a Police station, a girls’ school and a state-owned hotel in the Swat district of NWFP on June 26. In fact, on June 23, TTP militants had captured Jandola town in South Waziristan, after a gun-battle with pro-Government tribesmen, in which six persons, including four tribesmen and two militants, were killed. Latest reports indicate that the Army has moved approximately 3,000 troops into Jandola to evict the militants. According to General Athar Abbas, the military spokesman, Security Forces (SFs) have cleared Jandola of militants loyal to Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud.
There is a fair amount of confusion within the Government on counter-terrorism. The NWFP Governor Owais Ahmad Ghani declared, on June 13, that the Government would continue its dialogue with militants in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) despite ‘enormous’ international pressure. However, on June 25, Prime Minister Gilani reportedly approved a military operation to clear FATA of militants. Gilani approved the use of force during a high-level meeting that reviewed progress on the war on terrorism and the law and order scenario in the NWFP and FATA. The meeting also reportedly decided that the Government would continue negotiations with "local elders to isolate hardcore militants." The Chief of Army Staff would take the lead on deciding when to employ military force, including the deployment of the Frontier Corps. An official statement later disclosed that the meeting decided to fight "terrorism and extremism" through a ‘multi-pronged strategy’: "The broad objective of this strategy will be to bring about peace, reconciliation and normalcy of life in the country and marginalise the hard core terrorists, militants and criminal elements." The statement, at best, reflects the vagueness that now pervades the state.
Cornered by the militants, the Government appears to be faltering, unsure whether to proceed with dialogue alone or follow a purely military approach. While it retains the option to initiate military operations at an opportune time, delays threaten to compound the situation, as further contradictions and complexities emerge. Islamabad should also be well aware of the omissions and commissions of the President Pervez Musharraf’s strategy in prosecuting the campaign against terrorism – and wary of treading the same path, as appears to be the present case.
The confusion in strategy largely reflects the Gillani regime’s misconception – no different from its predecessor’s – that ‘talking to the devil’ will yield rich dividends in the embattled country. Recent history in Pakistan is replete with examples that unambiguously indicate that appeasement only creates safe and significantly new spaces for terrorism.
At a certain level, the Government remains substantially in denial. On June 20, the NWFP Senior Minister Bashir Ahmed Bilour told the Provincial Assembly that there were no Taliban in Peshawar and the provincial Government would not hold talks with local Taliban in other settled areas. "We do not accept Taliban except in Swat. Nor are we going to initiate dialogue with them," he told the House. However, Rehman Malik, Adviser to the Prime Minster on Interior Affairs, stated on June 24 that the Government was fully aware of the militancy situation in the NWFP and would "take proper action" within a week. Addressing the National Assembly, he declared that the situation in Peshawar was not critical: "The Government is not sleeping and is aware of its responsibilities."
On June 17, the Swat-based Taliban militants suspended contact with the NWFP Government to protest against the slow progress on a peace agreement they entered into on May 21, 2008. Taliban spokesman Muslim Khan, stated, further, that "some elements were interfering in the peace process," as a result of which the Taliban had decided to temporarily freeze communications with the provincial Government. While this could be seen as a routine pressure tactic, it appeared to be working. Reports on June 20 indicated that the two sides resumed dialogue when the provincial Forests Minister Wajid Ali Khan ‘secretly’ met Taliban leaders and assured them that their reservations would be addressed. He met several Taliban leaders, including Ali Bakht, Haji Muslim Khan, Maulana Amin, Mahmood Khan and Nisar Khan, in the Deouli area of Swat and asked them to continue the dialogue. The Taliban reportedly complained that militants were still in prison and that the Army had not withdrawn from the area.
Sources indicate that, among the issues which the Taliban are adamant on, are the withdrawal of the military, the release of detained Taliban operatives, and the return of arms and ammunition seized from the militants. The Army, still a reluctant supporter of the peace deals, is not yet ready to cede space. There is also some opposition, both within the Army and the political administration, on the release of detained Taliban operatives. Further, Islamabad is aware that acceding to these demands would ensure that that the Taliban /al Qaeda combine have de jure control and full freedom of movement and activities across FATA and the NWFP.
Recognizing that the state of play in NWFP was now critical, Parliamentarians warned the Government that the country might lose one of its provinces if it did not consider the situation in NWFP seriously. Speaking in the National Assembly, Maulana Fazlur Rehman, chief of his own faction of the Jamaat-e-Ulema-e-Islam and a patron of the Taliban, declared that it was a matter of months before the NWFP was no longer part of Pakistan. He also criticised Malik’s statements, arguing that the Government would further aggravate the situation through the use of force. Rehman’s concern is not completely misplaced. Reports indicate that "these days Taliban fighters don't sneak in to Peshawar... They arrive in broad daylight on the back of pick-up trucks, brandishing automatic weapons, and threatening owners of music stores to close down." Mehmood Shah, a former tribal region security chief, said "This speaks of a complete lack of control by the Government over the situation." Syed Saleem Shahzad writes that "there is now a belief in security circles that should they want to, the Taliban could take the Peshawar Valley."
A security plan is, however, being designed to protect Peshawar from attacks by the Taliban. Around 3,000 security force personnel are to be deployed to guard the city and 26 security posts would be set up to monitor militant activities. An unnamed senior police official had earlier stated that Police had told the Government it could not control militancy on its own and needed the assistance of the Frontier Constabulary, the Frontier Corps and the Army.
Ambiguous peace agreements initiated by Islamabad and the NWFP Government are currently allowing the Taliban, al Qaeda and allied jihadi groups to regroup, build up their strength and consolidate. Having secured immense gains from previous pacts, the Taliban/al Qaeda combine are now pushing for a further consolidation which would not only ensure rapid geographical expansion, but force further capitulation on the state, which remains, regrettably, a prisoner of its own vacillations.
While there have been earlier reports about desertions among the besieged Pakistan armed forces fighting the Islamists, classified US documents now indicate that the Frontier Corps has been heavily infiltrated and influenced by the Taliban. There are "box loads" of reports of the troops joining militants in attacks on coalition forces, according to the classified US 'after-action' reports, compiled following clashes on Pakistan-Afghan border. "The United States and Nato have substantial information on this problem. It's taking place at a variety of places along the border with the Frontier Corps giving direct and indirect assistance," The Observer quoted an unnamed American official as saying. "The US documents reportedly describe the direct involvement of Frontier Corps troops in attacks on the Afghan National Army and coalition forces, and also about detailed attacks launched so close to Frontier Corps outposts that Pakistani co-operation with the Taliban is assumed."
Pakistan’s incapacity to prosecute the war on terror in the FATA and NWFP due to disastrous deals with the militants has also augmented the already gigantic terrorist problem in neighbouring Afghanistan. In fact, Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai threatened to send Afghan troops across the border to fight Taliban militants within Pakistan. Accusing Pakistan of sheltering most of the militants involved in recent incidents in the Garmser District of Helmand Province, he told a Press Conference that Afghanistan had the right to self-defence and, since militants cross over from Pakistan "to come and kill Afghans and kill coalition troops, it exactly gives us the right to do the same." In response, the PM’s advisor, Rehman Malik, warned the "bordering country" against launching attacks inside Pakistan, adding, "Otherwise we will also launch action." Meanwhile, on June 26, Pakistan rejected Afghan accusations that its Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) was behind an assassination attempt against President Hamid Karzai in April 2008.
Islamabad’s failure to arrive at an effective counter-terrorist strategy has, unsurprisingly though rather late, invited criticism from the US. US Defence Secretary Robert Gates stated in Washington on June 27 that Pakistan's failure to put pressure on Taliban forces on the country's border with Afghanistan had fueled a rise in violence. A 40 per cent spike in violence in east Afghanistan in the first five months of 2008 "is a matter of concern, of real concern, and I think that one of the reasons that we're seeing the increase... is more people coming across the border from the frontier area," Gates said. He noted, further, "the ability of the Taliban and other insurgents to cross that border and not being under any pressure from the Pakistani side of the border is clearly a concern." He also said cross-border infiltration and violence had increased in the past few months after peace deals were negotiated with Taliban and other militants. According to Gates, "What has happened is that, as various agreements have been negotiated or were in the process of negotiation with various groups by the Pakistani Government, there was the opportunity – the pressure was taken off of these people and these groups… And they've therefore been more free to be able to cross the border and create problems for us." Earlier, on June 10, the US Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Admiral Michael Mullen had declared that any future terrorist attack against US interests would most likely be carried out by militants based in FATA. He noted that tribal groups with ties to al Qaeda in the FATA represent the worst security threat to the US.
Further, the US is now finding it difficult to initiate and sustain its own agenda in Pakistan. The problem partly lies in the fact that it does not have a completely acquiescent Government or an obliging Army establishment in Islamabad. Adding to the complexity is the status of the besieged and weighed down President Musharraf who, contrary to what a lot of people anticipated, refuses to ‘go quietly into the night’.
Amid growing apprehensions in Washington, Kabul and elsewhere on the mounting disorder in Pakistan, Islamabad may be pushed into launching selective, if not large-scale, military operations in the NWFP and FATA. Given the prevailing dynamic, however, this will only raise violence even further – even as any effort to hammer out a negotiated deal with the extremists offers no relief. Pakistan, it appears, remains caught in a cleft stick, with no avenues of escape.
The ULFA Mutiny
Northeastern India’s frontline separatist group, the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), is faced with its biggest mutiny in nearly 30 years of its existence. On June 24, 2008, two of the three companies of the rebel group’s crack ‘28th battalion’ announced a unilateral ceasefire with the authorities, saying the move was aimed at facilitating peace talks between the outfit and the Government of India. This was, indeed, a significant development because the ‘28th battalion’ of the ULFA, also known as the ‘Kashmir Camp’, is headquartered in Myanmar, and has been the most potent strike force of the outfit, active in Assam’s eastern Tinsukia, Dibrugarh, and Sivasagar districts, as also in adjoining Arunachal Pradesh.
The truce called by the Alpha and Charlie companies of the ULFA’s ‘28th battalion’ has not really come as a surprise. On June 21, 2008, three days before the ceasefire announcement, a former commander of the ‘28th battalion’, Mrinal Hazarika, walked out of prison in Dibrugarh on bail. The authorities had apparently not opposed his bail plea, facilitating the ULFA leader’s release from jail, where he had been lodged since his arrest in 2005 from Siliguri in West Bengal. The next day, Hazarika telephoned journalists to say he was back with his colleagues in the ‘28th battalion’. Two days later, Hazarika, along with Jiten Dutta, another top commander of the ‘28th battalion’, and a dozen other members of the unit, issued a signed statement announcing the truce.
When these ULFA leaders, who can now be described as the pro-talk group, addressed the media on June 26, 2008, at one of their strongholds in the village of Amarpur, in eastern Tinsukia District, close to the border with Arunachal Pradesh, it was clear that they had been in touch with the authorities for long. Hazarika, who was among those who addressed the visiting journalists, openly admitted having parleys with officials of the Assam Police, the Army and the central intelligence agencies during the run-up to their truce announcement. It was not surprising, therefore, to find Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi, quickly welcoming the ceasefire call by the two companies of the ‘28th battalion’ and promising help to facilitate their peace initiative. Assam Police chief, R. N. Mathur, has since been quoted in the media as saying the Alpha and Charlie companies of the ULFA’s ‘28th battalion’ will be outside the purview of the ongoing counter-insurgency offensive of the Security Forces (SF) in view of their truce call.
Whether or not the announcement of a truce by a section of the ULFA will serve any purpose in taking the ‘peace process’ forward, the points raised by the pro-talk ULFA leaders before the media are of significance:
The call by the pro-talk ULFA leaders to their bosses — ‘chairman’ Arabinda Rajkhowa, ‘commander-in-chief’ Paresh Baruah, ‘foreign secretary’ Sasadhar Choudhury and others — to enter into unconditional talks with New Delhi is nothing unusual. What is particularly significant, however, is their statement that the ULFA’s central leaders — believed by Indian authorities to be operating from Bangladesh — have preferred to remain silent on the threat posed by illegal migrants from Bangladesh to the very identity of the Assamese people. By raising the issue of illegal influx from Bangladesh, the pro-talk leaders have put the ULFA leadership in the dock, and in doing so, seek to appease local sentiments, including those of influential mainstream groups in Assam, who have been raising the migration issue with determination to rid the State of illegal aliens.
While these developments are certainly positive, from the point of view of the authorities, there are no grounds for euphoria. The events in Nagaland in recent weeks have shown what factionalism within an insurgency movement can do, derailing gains that may have been made over the years through peace processes. At least 40 Naga rebels have been killed in factional fights since May 2008, and as many as 62 since the beginning of the year. Nevertheless, there will certainly be enormous pressure on the ULFA leadership now, and the central leaders will have to introspect on the state of the organization and the causes that have led to the ‘28th battalion’s’ mutiny. A crucial aspect of the latest turn of events is that direct talks between the rebels and the Government have actually occurred without the involvement of intermediaries, and particularly without the participation of the ULFA-backed PCG.
The security establishment believes that the ULFA leadership could soon be isolated if more rebel units were to come forward to join the pro-talk group or the peace process. This argument is not something that the ULFA leadership can simply brush aside. It has been a long time since the ULFA’s top leaders have hiding out abroad, running the organization by remote control, and many of the top operational commanders, with whom the top leaders were personally familiar and who were appointed to key posts by them, have fallen into the security dragnet. Their positions have been filled up by newer cadres, many of whom have not had the opportunity to work closely with their top brass.
It would be naïve to expect the ULFA to follow the example of the pro-talk group in the ‘28th battalion’, but the outfit will certainly be forced to formulate a strategy to repair the damage. One option would be to launch a series of strikes, particularly on soft targets (a bomb blast on June 29, 2008 at a crowded market at Kumarikata, in the western Baksa district, on the Bhutan border, killed five people and injured more than 50 others while another explosion in the central Assam district of Nagaon on June 27, 2008 injured six people), or get busy rebuilding the two breakaway companies of the ‘28th battalion’ to fill up the void created by the desertion of the pro-talk group. If that happens, Assam could well witness fratricidal feuds between ULFA factions. In fact, pro-talk leaders of the group like Hazarika have admitted that they are, indeed, apprehensive of such an outcome, and stated that they were "taking precautions". Local media reports suggest that some cadres of the Alpha and Charlie companies of the ‘28th battalion’ have joined the Bravo company as they did not want to be a party to the truce.
The Government, combating the ULFA in a systematic manner since the first military offensive (Operation Bajrang) was launched in November 1990, will certainly receive a temporary reprieve following the latest truce. The challenge, now, is to consolidate these gains and establish an effective process to secure peace in the State. This is going to be an uphill task as ULFA military chief Paresh Baruah has said on June 29, 2008 that any dialogue with the Government must include the group’s key issue, that of ‘sovereignty’ of Assam. Talks with two companies of the rebel group will certainly create tremendous pressure on the ULFA high command, but cannot end the insurrection in Assam. Over the coming weeks, it will be interesting to discover how the pro-talks group will respond to the Assam Government’s stated position that rebel cadres coming forward to join the peace process must lay down arms and stay at designated camps, till a final resolution is reached through negotiations. There is little reason to believe that the road to peace in Assam will not remain thorny.
Weekly Fatalities: Major Conflicts in South Asia
June 23-29, 2007
Provisional data compiled from English language media sources.
39 Police personnel killed in Maoist attack in Orissa: 39 security force (SF) personnel including unspecified number of Greyhounds commandos from Andhra Pradesh were killed on June 29 in an attack carried out by the Communist Party of India-Maoist (CPI-Maoist) cadres on a 64-member joint Andhra Pradesh-Orissa police party in the Chitrakonda reservoir of Malkangiri District, close to the Andhra Pradesh border. The SF personnel were returning after conducting combing operations in the Sileru area, after getting information that the Maoists were holding a conclave there. Maoists reportedly fired rockets targeting the boat in which the SF personnel were travelling. The boat capsized drowning some SF personnel. Others who swam ashore were reportedly ambushed by the Maoists. Times of India; Hindu, June 30, 2008.
Prime Minister Koirala resigns: Girija Prasad Koirala announced his resignation as Nepal's Prime Minister on June 26 during a meeting of the Constituent Assembly (CA). The resignation paves the way for the formation of a new coalition government led by the Communist Party of Nepal- Maoist (CPN-Maoist) which had emerged as the largest political party in the April 2008 CA elections. "Even though I am gone, I hope the politics of understanding and unity will continue", Koirala said addressing the CA. His resignation, however, will have to be officially submitted to the President, who is yet to be elected. Nepal News, June 27, 2008.
Taliban ends all peace agreements with the Government: The Tehrik-e-Taliban (TTP) announced on June 29 that they have ended all peace agreements with the Pakistan Government. A shura (executive council) of the TTP held earlier that day had endorsed Amir (Chief) Baitullah Mehsud’s announcement about suspending all peace agreements and negotiations with the Government in FATA and the NWFP. TTP spokesperson Maulana Omar citing reasons for suspending the peace deals said that despite previous agreements the Government had launched operations against Taliban in Swat, Khyber Agency, Jandola and Darra Adamkhel. Dawn; Daily Times, June 30, 2008.
22 members of a pro-government "peace committee" killed by Taliban: 22 members of a pro-government "peace committee" were killed by the TTP on June 25 at Jandola of Tank in the NWFP. Three days earlier, the TTP had abducted 28 "Peace Committee" members. Tank District Co-ordination Officer Barkatullah Marwat told, "I can confirm that 22 bullet-ridden bodies of those kidnapped by the Taliban three days ago were recovered on June 25 near Jandola." A TTP spokesman claiming responsibility for the killings said, "We have killed 22 and the fate of the remaining six will be decided later." "It was a joint action by the Bhittani and Mehsud tribes against dacoits. The men we killed were involved in thefts and robbery and had unleashed a reign of terror on the people", he added. Daily Times, June 26, 2008.
217 LTTE militants and 23 soldiers killed during the week: 217 Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) militants and 23 soldiers were among 240 persons killed in separate incidents between June 23 and June 29, 2008. At least 10 LTTE militants were killed and 30 others injured as the troops captured an LTTE bunker line in the Palamoddai area of Vavuniya District on June 22. Four soldiers were killed while seven others were injured in the clashes. On June 23, 10 more LTTE militants were killed by the security forces (SFs) in clashes in the Chalampan, Veddayamurippu, Kiraddikulam and Kovitakunchu areas of Mannar District. Two soldiers were also killed while one more received injury. At least 12 LTTE militants and two soldiers were killed during separate clashes in the Kiriibbanwewa area of Vavuniya District. 11 more militants and four soldiers sustained injuries during these clashes. On the same day, 10 more LTTE militants were killed and six others wounded during confrontations in the Periyamadu, Nedunkandal, Andankulam, Palamoddai and Werapiliyathura areas of Mannar District. On June 24, 10 LTTE militants were killed as the troops operating in the Mannar front captured several key militant locations in the North and North East of Adampan and secured control over Mavilakkandi, Minnanirachchan and Marattikannaddi areas. 12 more LTTE militants were killed as the troops operating on the Mannar front captured two and half square kilometres of land between Chalampan and Marattikannaddi on the Andankulam-Vedithalthivu road in Mannar District on June 26. At least 25 LTTE militants were killed and an unspecified number of them injured as SF personnel captured the outfit’s strategic "54-Base" on June 27. Separately, 25 more LTTE militants were killed and two soldiers sustained injuries as SFs engaged in operation ‘Rice Bowl’ on the Mannar Front fully captured the Andankulam area and 13 square kilometres surrounding it. At least 20 LTTE militants were killed more than 40 others injured in clashes between the two sides in Andankulam, north of Janakapura and Kiriibbanwewa areas of Vavuniya District. A soldier was also killed while two more sustained injuries in the confrontations. Further, on June 8, at least 20 LTTE militants were killed and 13 others injured when troops opened fire on militant positions in Ambaddankulam, Naddankulam, Navatkulam, Panichchanmadu, Naouarampu and Palamoddai areas of Vavuniya District. Two soldiers were also killed and two others injured in the clashes. On June 29, the 58 Division of the Sri Lanka Army operating on the Mannar front successfully completed operation ‘Rice Bowl’ after capturing over 120 square kilometres in the area including 105 square kilometres of the most fertile land in the country. The troops also captured another LTTE base in the Parappakandattan area, four kilometres north of Giant Tank in the Mannar District. Sri Lanka Army; Daily News; Colombo Page, June 23-30, 2008.